SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (Asbury Park Press) -- It was a refrain heard not long ago: We will rebuild.
The mantra was echoed from small-business owners to the state's chief executive in the borough on Friday. But this time their chorus wasn't about surviving a superstorm. It was a promise to rise from a fire.
"We will rebuild," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said. "We'll make new memories for our families because that's what we do."
Fanned by wind and fueled by wood-based structures, a small fire grew into a massive blaze Thursday afternoon, tearing through five blocks of partially new boardwalk before hundreds of firefighters could stop it in Seaside Heights. Between Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, the cost of repairing the boardwalk alone could surpass $1.88 million.
It wasn't until 11 p.m. Thursday - more than eight hours after the fire started - that officials deemed the blaze contained, according to Ocean County Chief Fire Coordinator Brian Gabriel.
"The first three hours of this fire, it was bedlam," he said.
The fire's origin and cause are still under investigation by the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. Officials said it could be days before those details emerge.
On Friday, as fire crews continued to work on remaining hot spots and investigators pored over the ruins.
"We're not leaving any stone unturned." said Al Della Fave of the Prosecutor's Office.
Initial reports, pegged the starting point at Kohr's, a popular frozen custard shop located at the southern end of the Seaside Park boardwalk.
Bob Martucci, Seaside Park's administrator, was stunned by the new catastrophe. In just a few years, the borough has been through Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy, and now a fire, he said.
"I don't know. Someone's testing us. What's next, the locusts?" Martucci said with a chuckle. Then, more seriously, he added, "The people in the businesses are resilient, and the people in this town are, so we'll be back next season."
Martucci called the boardwalk area the town's economic engine. The boardwalk businesses are the borough's largest taxpayer and a major attraction each summer, he said.
Seaside Park's volunteer firefighters got the first call around 2:30 p.m. and immediately called on Seaside Heights for help, Seaside Park Fire Chief David Hansen said. More calls for help went out as the fire rapidly grew.
Officials are still working to determine just how many businesses were consumed in the flames, but Seaside Heights officials said the number was 35 in that town alone. The five-block stretch spans Seaside Park's entire business area and part of Seaside Heights' boardwalk.
A whipping wind was one of the firefighter's biggest enemies. It sent embers north to spark smaller fires, including on the roof of a condominium building. That fire was quickly contained, but it pulled resources from the main blaze, Seaside Heights Fire Chief Bill Rumbolo said.
But it was the older, wood-frame buildings and a boardwalk that was burning from above and below that made the bad situation worse, Gabriel said.
"We had to get out ahead of it. Everybody did major attempts here with a direct attack, which helped, but the fire was just moving so fast it was beyond a direct attack," he said.
Thoughts of calling in the state Forest Fire Service for a flyover with its bucket that can hold a few hundred gallons of water passed through his mind, but because of the strong wind, Gabriel doesn't think it would have done much.
Crews tore out a section of the boardwalk in their first attempt to stop the fire from moving north, but the flames jumped right over the break, Rumbolo said. Crews removed another, wider section of the new boardwalk, as well as doused area buildings, and were finally successful in stopping the fire's progress.
"When you see it, you know it's total destruction," Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said Friday. "But on the other side, you have to be grateful that it only took what it took."
Federal representatives and state officials said Friday they would do what they could to help the towns recover. The White House issued a statement that the Obama "administration will continue to support the state and local effort as New Jersey recovers and rebuilds."
Christie noted during a news conference Friday that the White House has been in touch with his administration, and he expected to speak with President Barack Obama at some point about the situation.
Both Seasides already have been looking to the state and federal governments for financial assistance after Sandy's devastating blow last October.
The two sections of the Seaside Heights' boardwalk that were torn up as a fire break were completed only about four months ago, largely thanks to funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
James Yuelling, 43, of Toms River, looked at what was left of FunTown Pier, where he had worked for the last decade before Sandy destroyed it last year. The fire consumed what little Sandy had spared.
"It's heartbreaking to see," said Yuelling, who operated the Ferris wheel that was brought down earlier this year. "I don't know what is going to happen."
Jeffery Meads, 52, of Seaside Heights, said the area has been through way too much at this point.
"When is enough, enough?" Meads asked. "We really can't take anymore."
Akers was happy such a massive fire was doused with few injuries.
About a dozen of the roughly 400 firefighters who responded from across Ocean County and several others had smoke inhalation and heat-related injuries, but none was serious, officials said.
Contributing: Nicholas Huba, Erik Larsen and Brett Bodner of the Press