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Dozens Of Businesses Destroyed By Boardwalk Inferno

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By Jim Melwert, Matt Rivers

SEASIDE PARK, NJ (CBS) — Firefighters say a massive fire that tore through the boardwalk between two Jersey Shore towns is now 100-percent contained (see related story).

The investigation into the cause of this fire suspended until Saturday morning. This, after a day long effort that began once the fire was finally put out.

One of the lasting images of Hurricane Sandy was the roller coaster in the ocean off of Seaside Heights. This fire happened about half a mile south of there, and fire officials say the way this fire was burning, we’re lucky we’re not having this conversation way up there — that’s how quickly this was moving.

In Seaside Park, ironically, while there was a lot of damage from Sandy, many of these businesses survived. That is, until Thursday’s fire, which was fanned by 30-mile-per-hour winds.

Ocean County chief fire coordinator Brian Gabriel called battling the blaze “a wicked challenge.”

“It was moving sort of like a forest fire moves. It was moving very rapidly, very hot, carrying embers six, eight, 10 blocks away. We had spot fires so far out it was incredible.”

Much like fighting a forest fire, Gabriel says they had to cut trenches in the boardwalk to stop the fire.

As for what he witnessed, he says imagine a 50 foot wall of fire, about 100 feet high coming at you. Gabriel said if it wasn’t for all the help from area fire departments and the 400 firefighters who lent a hand, this fire would have gone all the way to the far north end of Seaside Heights.

A few departments from out of town were on the way to a different shore point for a firefighters convention (see related story).

“Some of the companies were on the Parkway on the way down to the Wildwood convention and they were diverted here,” Seaside Park Mayor Bob Matthies said.

Matthies said the help was well received, but wished it wasn’t needed, as his town deals with yet another crippling blow.

“I guess we are somewhat unlucky, but it certainly bodes for the fiber of our community,” he said.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said during a Friday morning news conference that the fire was 95-percent contained. Christie said an exact cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Christie said he his heart goes out to the owners of the businesses that were destroyed (see related story), but he vowed to rebuild.

“We will rebuild … make new memories. We are tough and we stand together in a crisis,” Christie said Friday.

While the fire is under control, there’s still a lot to be done, and firefighters are still spraying water on several hot-spots. They say they’re still pumping about 8-10,000 gallons of water per minute.

Joe Maruca owns Maruca’s Tomato Pies, a boardwalk staple gone to the flames. He lost it in Sandy, too. He knows how tough it will be to rebuild but still, he is determined.

“This is our 63rd  summer we just got through, as you can see we have some work to do head of us,” Maruca said.

The promise to rebuild is one thing, The reality of navigating insurance claims, relationships between tenants and landlords, and possible government assistance is a whole other story.

But good news Friday, that help could be on the way, and quickly, with a meeting scheduled for Saturday between business owners and governmental agencies.

“The Governor’s office said he was going to help out with that and with low interest loans and grants. So tomorrow will be telling as far as what he’ll get for us, in an expedited way,” said Mike Loundy, Seaside Heights Director of Community Improvements.

The mission overnight becomes one for law enforcement. Their task is to keep the boardwalk clear until fire officials return bright and early Saturday morning to continue their investigation.

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