Firefighters use an aerial ladder to try to douse flames ripping through businesses along the Seaside Heights boardwalk, south of Lincoln Avenue (THOMAS P. COSTELLO/APP STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
SEASIDE PARK, NJ (APP.COM) -- Wood burns. Fires happen. Boardwalks get damaged. This we know.
What was "unthinkable," as Gov. Chris Christie phrased it, was that it happened here, and now.
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Had a bully of a storm not cold-cocked this mythic corner of the Jersey Shore just 319 days ago, the breathtaking fire that chewed up a chunk of the boardwalk through Seaside Park and Seaside Heights Thursday would still have been disastrous.
But the timing and context of it gave this fire an extra, emotional dimension for those who witnessed it, whether at the scene, on TV or over the Internet. The Jet Star coaster may have been removed months ago, but the trauma of superstorm Sandy still lingers. It somehow made the smoke that much blacker, the losses of businesses and jobs that much greater, the still-unfolding story of the fire that much sadder.
"It's horrible. Why is God doing this to us again?" asked a distraught Connie Hawkins, a Sandy victim from the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, who rushed to the scene after spotting the smoke while she was at the bank, depositing her FEMA check, no less.
"How much more can we take?"
There were flashbacks from the storm: Utilities were cut off. The Route 37 bridge was shut down. The governor was there, looking very grave. All day, the bad news spread on social media, even faster than the fire.
"It has been a long and emotional day for all of us here at Maruca's Pizza," read a Facebook post from the iconic Seaside Heights boardwalk pizzeria. "I am very sad to notify everyone that our building has been damaged and potentially destroyed by the fire."
Was this really happening? The borough of Seaside Heights, which raced the calendar to finish the extreme makeover of its storm-damaged boardwalk in time for Memorial Day, had scheduled a bonfire on the beach this weekend to celebrate its centennial.
The festival is called "New Heights," but this is a new low.
"We're strong, we're Jersey Strong, but enough is enough," said Leo DiBella, owner of Bippy's Pizza, located two blocks inland from the fire.
"When is it going to end already?"
Michael Tierney, a councilman in Seaside Park, could scarcely believe what he was seeing.
"They're all gone again," he said of the businesses succumbing to the flames.
Mark Dorsey's little pong game stand was defenseless against such a blaze. The 21-year-old had invested nearly $10,000 to open the stand on Labor Day weekend. It was his first business venture, which he'd hoped would make enough money to pay down his student loans.
"I was thinking about running in there and taking my prizes, but it was way too late," Dorsey said. "I'm just speechless. It probably won't hit me until tomorrow when I realize I'm not going in to work."
The dramatic, daylong spectacle of towering plumes of smoke and windswept flames conjured images of the doomed Morro Castle cruise ship and the crash of the Hindenburg, disasters that were seared into the memories of earlier generations at the Shore.
Jennifer Katz said the smoke reminded her of the billowing cloud at ground zero that she saw from her home in Brooklyn 12 years ago this week.
The 20-year-old, who had moved to an apartment in Seaside Heights a month ago, described a scene of "complete chaos" near the fire Thursday afternoon.
Balls of burning debris were raining down on the boardwalk and beach. A child near her was choking on the smoke. A woman whose condominium unit caught fire was in a panic.
"She was just in the street screaming, saying she was going to have a heart attack," said Katz, who has first-aid training and tried to lend assistance.
"It's devastating," Katz said. "All the progress that we made from Sandy is completely gone."
Some said they feared that the fire might turn out to be even more damaging than Sandy.
"The hurricane took out some of the boardwalk. It was salvageable," said Sherry Jacoby of Seaside Park. "You ain't salvaging nothing from this."