Flames spread rapidly along the boardwalk in Seaside Park at the Jersey Shore as dark smoke was spotted from miles away.
“I see thick, billowing, black smoke with ruby red flames. It’s still raging out of control," said Justin Auciello, of Jersey Shore Hurricane News, who was on the scene this afternoon.
The fire, which started around 2:30 p.m. near Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard shop, 1800 Boardwalk, has destroyed at least 80% of the boardwalk in Seaside Park. That's according to Seaside Park’s Police Chief, Francis Larken, who also said possibly three dozen businesses have also been destroyed.
Six hours after it started, crews have the fire under control, but it is still burning as of 9:30 p.m., according to Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd.
"This is obviously just an unthinkable situation, for us to be standing here and watching this, what's going on behind all of you is just unthinkable," said NJ Governor Chris Christie, who added that when he first heard the news he told he staff 'I feel like I want to throw up' after all the work this area did to rebuild.x
Gov. Christie estimates that 400 firefighters were called to the scene. Those crews cut a 20-foot wide trench along the the boardwalk at Ocean and Lincoln Avenues, in the hopes of stopping the fire from spreading.
Everything south of the trench is expected to be a total loss, said Christie. They are trying to save as much as possible north of the trench.
Christine Hemingway was working inside Kohr Brothers this afternoon and said it appeared as if the smoke was rising from underneath the boardwalk.
"Our manager came running through the stand and said 'get out,' we go around the corner in front of Biscayne Candy and there was smoke coming up from the boardwalk," says Hemingway. "There was a little smoke and then all of a sudden, it got real thick and black."
A dispatcher for Seaside Fire Radio also received a report that the fire was coming from underneath the boardwalk.
"Report of flames showing underneath the boardwalk by the Sawmill," that's the audio call put out to crews dispatched to the scene.
Strong winds, whipping at speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour, are the biggest challenge for firefighters called in to respond from neighboring NJ counties.
“It’s an all call, which means anybody that has equipment [in Ocean County] are asked to respond," said Al Della Fave, of the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, who is handling calls for the Sheriff's office while they are on scene. That means up to 33 municipalities can respond.
“It’s all hands on deck and they’re doing the best they can, but the winds are really making it difficult," said Della Fave.
Embers blew for at least 8 blocks, igniting a fire at the nearby Royal Sands Condominium complex at Sumner Avenue and Ocean Terrace, which was quickly put out. Those embers also landed on area homes and businesses.
Nancy O’Brien runs EJ’s Dance Club at 919 Boardwalk, which is about a mile and a half from the fire. Even at that distance the smoke is a real nuisance.
“It’s pretty acidy. Our eyes are burning. It’s very, very windy,” O’Brien said.
The area of the boardwalk between Stockton and Farragut Avenues, in front of Funtown Pier, was not destroyed during Superstorm Sandy. But the pier itself was, becoming a symbolic image of the storm's destruction.
An estimated 90% of the 33 rides on Funtown Pier were lost in the storm. The pier, which was not open this Summer, became fully engulfed in flames, destroying the small portion that was left standing after the storm.
“It’s just devastating to the area. It’s just heartbreaking to see. After what we just went to almost a year ago, and now this. I’m just in disbelief and shock over this. I can’t believe it, " says Larkin.
The fire also spread to at least four blocks of the boardwalk in neighboring Seaside Heights, which was destroyed by Sandy and then rebuilt.
Several firefighters have suffered minor injuries, mostly heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
A spokesman for New Jersey Natural Gas says they've isolated gas service just to the boardwalk area and no residents have been affected.
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has more than a dozen personnel responding to the scene to assist.
As the number of emergency personnel grows, others are being told to stay away.
“We are asking people to stay away from the area so that firefighters can fight this fire," said Donna Flynn, Public Information Officer for Ocean County Emergency Management.
The Mathis Bridge, which connects Toms River to the Seaside area is closed to non-emergency vehicles, as of 5:30 p.m.
All roads leading into the area of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park are closed except to residents.
The Borough of Seaside Park is located on the Barnegat Barrier Island in Ocean County, N.J.