Businesses burned out in Seaside Heights, N.J., are shown Sept. 16, 2013.
(Photo: Thomas P.Costello, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press)
TOMS RIVER, N.J. - The fire that devastated the boardwalk in Seaside Park and spread to Seaside Heights happened because of an electrical malfunction, authorities confirmed Tuesday.
Investigators from several agencies - including the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and New Jersey State Police - had been combing the charred remains of the boardwalk in search of clues since Thursday's fire, which damaged or destroyed 68 businesses along four blocks.
The fire began underneath a building housing Kohr's Frozen Custard and Biscayne Candies in electrical wiring installed after 1970. The wiring had sustained damage from sand and salt water during Hurricane Sandy, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato said.
A spark blew apart the live wires under the boardwalk beneath the building, said Jessica Gotthold, an ATF agent. Investigators spent 40 hours combing the scene for evidence and will continue monitoring the site to prevent looting.
"The experience and knowledge of this elite team was truly evident in their concise presentation of findings," Coronato said. "Today I'm confidently bringing some sense of closure to this tragic event, affording the many owners of the destroyed and damaged businesses the ability to now take measures to rebuild and recover."
The wiring could have failed on its own without further damage from Sandy, he said. Before the fire, inspectors could not access the wires for maintenance, and the section where the fire started was a portion of the boardwalk not rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy.
"We planned for the worst," Coronato said. "I wanted the public to know we left no stone unturned," especially after reports that the fire was suspicious in nature.
Business owners who think that electrical wires beneath their stores may have sustained damage from last year's storm should schedule an inspection, he said.
On Monday, a caravan of state officials arrived in town, looking to help people and businesses like Steven "Bubba" Demuro who are still trying to recover.
"Loans, grants, I mean, I'm not really sure what we qualify for. I have to fill out the information," said Demuro, who owned Bubba's Dog House in Seaside Park.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pledged to provide money for removal of debris from the destroyed boardwalk using money from an existing grant meant for Sandy relief. Members of Christie's cabinet also came to Seaside Heights and met with businesses to discuss the next step in the area's rebuilding.
The governor already had announced that $15 million will be available to local businesses for rebuilding. The damage to the boardwalk alone is expected to be at least $1.88 million.
"We're moving as swiftly and aggressively as we can to help these communities and their boardwalk businesses rebuild from this unfortunate stumbling block to our overall Sandy recovery," Christie said in a news release. "By alleviating the costs associated with the debris removal process, state, county, and local officials as well as private entities can get down to work immediately to restore one of the Jersey Shore's most iconic boardwalks."
State officials had no estimates of cleanup costs and no time frame on debris removal.
The Rev. Richard Rossell, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish and police and fire chaplain for Seaside Heights, watched as news vans from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania TV stations filled the parking lot of his church across the street from Borough Hall.
"I said to them on Sunday: It's your faith that's saving me," Rossell said of his parishioners. "I admire the faith of these people; they've been through a storm, now a fire up there. And so that's what it's about. I'm up there, expounding, preaching, the faith of these people. They come back and they're faithful. ... This is what faith is about. I mean, you see the example of these people, they could very easily be discouraged and give up."
Fueled by wind, the boardwalk fire burned north for hours Thursday, devouring entire blocks before firefighters could stop its progress.
While weather did not cause the fire, strong winds from the north spread it, said David A. Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist at Rutgers University.
Contributing: Nicholas Huba and Todd B. Bates, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press