N.J. community mourns boardwalk after fire

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SEASIDE PARK, N.J. -- It wasn't just the colorful carousel they mourned as the sun rose over the charred ruins of the still-smoldering boardwalk.

It wasn't just the gutted eateries, the mangled arcade and the oceanfront promenade where young lovers spent summer evenings all destroyed in a fire that burned through the night.

As locals drifted to the stretch of beachfront that had been the heart of their community Friday, they mourned the loss of hope -- hope that this summer would be the turning point from October's Superstorm Sandy, and that they finally could feel recovery was moving forward.

"It just seems like a bad nightmare that doesn't end. Everything I had, everything I worked for, is gone," said Nick Dionisio as he stood on Ocean Avenue, watching firefighters douse hot spots on the boardwalk where his Park Seafood restaurant had stood.

If there was any good news to be found, it was in the low casualty numbers from the fire, and in the fact that the disaster occurred at the end, rather than the beginning, of the crucial summer tourism season.

Gov. Chris Christie was back here Friday morning to say there had been a few minor injuries among firefighters, and that the blaze was 95 percent contained. He also vowed to rebuild the damaged area, which stretches for about four long blocks through Seaside Park -- a community of about 2,200 year-round residents -- to the southern edge of Seaside Heights.

While the two small communities represent a tiny portion of the area wrecked by Sandy, they exemplify the devastation suffered by towns all along the East Coast, where vast swaths of businesses and homes were wiped away and thousands of people remain displaced.

Both are beach resorts that depend on summer vacation rentals and on visitors flocking to their boardwalk shops and cafes. Both staggered back from Sandy to reopen for business this summer, even as the evidence of the storm's destruction -- boarded-up homes, construction cranes towering over the sand, rebuilt houses surrounded by vacant lots -- marred their otherwise idyllic ocean views.

"We lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens," said Mr. Christie, standing across Ocean Avenue from the destruction.

The acrid smell of smoke and ash floated on the sea breeze, and firefighters continued to hose down the area, which officials warned was pocked with hot spots. Cheerful signs adorning the now-ruined businesses belied the reality beyond, on a recently rebuilt boardwalk that was no more.

"It's gone. It's gone," Mr. Christie said when asked to describe the promenade, which was closed to everyone but firefighters and arson investigators.

The fire began in or near an ice cream and frozen custard shop; it was far too soon, Mr. Christie said, to know what started it.

The governor had been in a meeting discussing post-Sandy recovery when he got word Thursday afternoon of the fire. "I said to my staff, 'I really feel like I'm going to throw up,' " Mr. Christie said Friday, describing his immediate reaction. "How much more are people going to be expected to take?"

Mr. Dionisio was taking a rare night off from work to spend time with his wife, Lauren, after having spent months rebuilding his business. Determined to be with his family, he didn't even answer his phone when it began ringing.

When he recognized some of the incoming numbers as police officers he knows, Mr. Dionisio knew something was wrong.

By then, the fire had become an out-of-control inferno, fueled by winds of 30 to 35 mph, tar roofs and tightly packed wooden structures that were devoured one after another. At the fire's height, more than 400 firefighters from several counties battled the flames. Water was drawn from everywhere -- even the bay and motel swimming pools -- as they tried to douse the walls of flames.

"All you saw was black smoke for blocks and blocks," said Nick Osborn, 21, a volunteer firefighter from nearby Silverton who rushed to the scene from his day job as a truck repairman. For him, and for most of the firefighters, this was a battle to save more than buildings.

"That's my childhood. That's where I would take my girlfriends on dates," Mr. Osborn said.

For those slapped twice by catastrophe, the future wasn't as clear. "I know the boardwalk will be back," Mr. Dionisio said. "But whether Park Seafood is in that future -- I don't know."



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