A last-ditch effort to halt the spread of the massive fire seemed to be working Thursday night after a stretch of the newly rebuilt walkway was ripped out as a makeshift fire break. An official said the fire was, "essentially under control," and 70% contained.
Public works crews in Seaside Heights took out a 25-foot section of boardwalk and filled the breach with towering sand dunes Thursday evening. They aimed halt the northward march of flames from a wind-whipped fire that destroyed dozens of businesses.
Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies says the fire break appears to have prevented the blaze from spreading for two hours. The walkway was only recently rebuilt from Superstorm Sandy.
"Our focus right now is getting this fire out," Gov. Chris Christie said. "Right now the key thing is keeping it from jumping across the street."
Seaside Park declared a state of emergency as more than 400 firefighters battling the flames. Seaside Park and Seaside Heights have support from 29 different fire companies in Ocean County. Firefighters from Atlantic, Cape May, Burlington and Monmouth Counties then provided backup to the towns who sent help to Seaside Park.
Several police agencies, NJ State Police, Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, Ocean County Sherriff's Office, Toms River police, Seaside Heights police, Lavallette police, all have made arrangements to set up a security perimeter around the site.
The fire began in a frozen custard stand on the boardwalk around 2:20 p.m., and quickly spread north into neighboring Seaside Heights.
Hours after the fire started, flames were still leaping into the sky and thick black smoke covered a long stretch of the coastline.
Evacuations were ordered for more than six blocks to the north of the fire.
Water pressure at the fire scene dropped to low levels due to so many firefighters operating and issues related to Hurricane Sandy. Water had to be pumped from Barnegat Bay.
The flames were destroying new boardwalk wood that had just been replaced days before Memorial Day weekend as both towns raced to recover from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Much of the Seaside Heights boardwalk was destroyed, and a roller coaster that plunged off a damaged amusement pier became a defining image of the storm.
Christie, who raced to the fire scene, was typically blunt describing his thoughts as he approached the blaze.
"I feel like I want to throw up," he said.
For hours, two boardwalk businesses, an arcade and the Saw Mill Cafe, a popular Jersey shore bar, escaped the flames. But shortly before 7 p.m. both were engulfed in a huge orange fireball that rolled into the darkening sky.
"We had to deal with Sandy last year and now this happens. We can't catch a break," said resident Janet Meisner as she watched firefighters struggle to contain the flames, which jumped from building to building.
An iconic building at the Funtown Pier that residents said was once a haunted house collapsed into a pile of burning embers.
Borough Councilwoman Nancy Koury said the fire caused several million dollars' worth of damage. At one point, she said, flames jumped across Ocean Avenue, the oceanfront street, and ignited two or three small houses but firefighters quickly doused them. A motel near the boardwalk also was engulfed in flames.
Authorities said several firefighters and residents were being treated for smoke inhalation. Two firefighters are said to have suffered very minor injuries.
Outsiders were urged to stay away from Seaside Heights and the fire area. Route 35 was closed in both directions between Route 37 in Seaside Heights and 24th Avenue in South Seaside Park.
Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy released a statement Thursday night saying:
"I called Governor Christie this evening and pledged whatever support we can provide for this summer-time landmark. After the tremendous effort to get the Jersey shore rebuilt after Super Storm Sandy, the fire that ravage the boardwalk today is an unimaginable next chapter. We stand ready to help in whatever capacity we can."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.