Bob Bielk/Asbury Park Press
ASBURY PARK, N.J. (USA TODAY) - Had a bully of a storm not cold-cocked this mythic corner of the Jersey Shore just 319 days ago, the breathtaking fire that chewed up a chunk of the boardwalk through Seaside Park and Seaside Heights Thursday would still have been disastrous.
But the timing and context of it gave this fire an extra, emotional dimension for those who witnessed it, whether at the scene, on TV or over the Internet. The Jet Star coaster may have been removed months ago, but the trauma of superstorm Sandy still lingers.
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It somehow made the smoke that much blacker, the losses of businesses and jobs that much greater, the still-unfolding story of the fire that much sadder.
PHOTOS | Fire on Jersey Shore boardwalk
The fire started at a frozen custard shop Thursday ripped along the boardwalks of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, N.J., and damaging nearly two dozen businesses along the way.
An emergency call reporting smoke at the Kohr's custard shop came in around 2:30 p.m. Thursday. The smoke spread out across the boardwalk as local firefighters arrived on the scene. Then the smoke "got huge," said Kevin Ogden, of Bridgewater.
Firefighters appeared to have little chance from the start, said Charlie O'Connor, a borough lifeguard who was surfing when he noticed flames being driven by wind. The New Jersey Weather and Climate Network reported southwest winds of 16 mph in Seaside Heights, with gusts of up to 29 mph. The winds blew embers that started other fires.
"A combination of the worst elements at one time," Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said.
Within an hour, most of the boardwalk block between Stockton and Farragut was engulfed in flames. Within two hours, by 4 p.m., the fire jumped another block and was burning buildings between Farragut and Porter.
By 4 p.m. it was a six-alarm fire.
Firefighters on the ground and on ladders poured streams of water into the roaring flames and thickening black smoke in an effort to keep the fire from spreading.
A little before 5 p.m., a fire break was created in an effort to get ahead of the fire and stop it. Heavy machinery was brought in to smash the wood and create a gap between the fire and the rest of the boardwalk. It didn't work.
Flames jumped across Ocean Avenue and burned condominium units and threatened homes. Firefighters drew water from Barnegat Bay as the water pressure in the fire hydrants dropped.
"They're trying to contain it as best as they can," Matthies said.
Around 5:30 p.m. the flames had moved to the FunTown Pier area, enveloping the main building in a yellow flame until it collapsed. Some people groaned as it fell.
By then, the state's governor was on his way to the scene and the authorities had closed off roads leading into the area.
Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency Thursday. He recalled his initial words to his staff as they briefed him of the barrier island's latest disaster: "I feel like I want to throw up."
"It's horrible. Why is God doing this to us again?" asked a distraught Connie Hawkins, a Sandy victim from the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, who rushed to the scene after spotting the smoke while she was at the bank, depositing her FEMA check, no less.
A second break held up, and firefighters doused the flames with water.
The fire was locally reported under control around 7:45 p.m., but some county officials disagreed. They said at 10 p.m. they were still tending to hot spots and smoldering piles.
"How much more can we take?"
No serious injuries were reported, but of the roughly 400 firefighters who responded to the blaze, 12 suffered smoke inhalation, Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd said.
Not since the Long Branch Amusement Pier fire of 1987, has there been a more disastrous beachfront fire on the Jersey Shore.
There were flashbacks from the storm: Utilities were cut off. The Route 37 bridge was shut down. The governor was there, looking very grave. All day, the bad news spread on social media, even faster than the fire.
"It has been a long and emotional day for all of us here at Maruca's Pizza," read a Facebook post from the iconic Seaside Heights boardwalk pizzeria. "I am very sad to notify everyone that our building has been damaged and potentially destroyed by the fire."
Was this really happening? The borough of Seaside Heights, which raced the calendar to finish the extreme makeover of its storm-damaged boardwalk in time for Memorial Day, had scheduled a bonfire on the beach this weekend to celebrate its centennial.