(Reuters) – A fast-moving fire that started in a custard shop raged through several blocks of boardwalk and businesses yesterday in Seaside Park, New Jersey, a shore town that was still rebuilding from damage caused by Superstorm Sandy.
Hundreds of firefighters struggling to contain the flames tore up the boardwalk and dug a 20-foot (6-meter) trench to keep the blaze driven by a stiff wind from spreading through the close-packed buildings, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said.
Television pictures showed a vast pillar of black smoke streaming north under winds gusting to 40 miles per hour (65 km per hour). Flames shot through roofs of buildings as firefighters poured streams of water from ladders into the blaze.
“I told my staff, ‘I feel like I want to throw up,’” Christie told a televised news conference, referring to the effort to rebuild after the October 2012 storm. “It is just unthinkable.”
Christie, who declared a state of emergency, said 20 businesses had been damaged in a six-block length of the boardwalk and firefighters were struggling to contain the blaze.
A major rainstorm heading to the shore should help douse the fire, he said.
Seaside Park is less than 2 miles (3.2 km) from the carnival rides and better-known boardwalk of Seaside Heights, where MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore” is filmed. Seaside Heights’ partly submerged Jet Star roller coaster became one of the most famous images of the damage from the giant storm.
Seaside Park’s Town Administrator Robert Martucci told CNN the fire had started in a frozen custard shop around 2:15 p.m. EDT (1815 GMT) and then raced out of control.
“It’s a very tough fire right now to fight,” he said.
New Jersey and New York bore the brunt of Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina. The center of the storm struck the New Jersey coast, damaging its tourism industry, and a federal relief program for overall Sandy damage has topped $60 billion, with New Jersey’s damage estimated at $37 billion.
Sandy took a heavy toll on Seaside Park, a town of about 2,200 people, destroying about 150 feet (45 meters) of its boardwalk and its Funtown Pier. A second pier was reduced to twisted wreckage.
Christie said the water infrastructure was still being repaired from Sandy damage and firefighters were forced to run hoses to nearby Barnegat Bay for water.
The cause of the fire was unknown, Christie said. Some firefighters suffered minor injuries, he added.
John Saaddy, a business owner in nearby Seaside Heights, New Jersey, told CNN the fire raced through a “fire highway” under the boardwalk. Embers were blown two or three blocks onto rooftops by the wind, he said.
“There was no way for the water from the top to come down into the beams underneath. So it was basically a big chase, and it spread. Incredibly, in one hour I watched three blocks” catch fire, he said.