SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (AP) - A raging fire destroyed much of an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk that had just been rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy, but a last-ditch effort to halt its spread by ripping out boards that had yet to burn succeeded in saving the rest of it Thursday.
The wind-whipped fire devoured eight blocks of boardwalk - four each in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights - and destroyed dozens of boardwalk businesses and caused millions in damages to the economic lifeblood of the twin tourist spots.
The Hail Mary effort to save the remainder of the boardwalk began in the evening when public works crews ripped out a 25-foot swath of boardwalk to serve as a makeshift fire break, depriving the blaze of fuel.
They then filled the void with giant sand piles - makeshift dunes that this time held back not water but fire.
"That appears to have done the trick," said Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies.
No serious injuries were reported.
Authorities had not officially declared the fire under control shortly before 10 p.m., but firefighters had made significant progress: flames that had leapt 50 feet into the afternoon sky were gone; only small pockets of fire remained to be doused.
"It certainly looks like it's been suppressed," the mayor said.
Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County prosecutor's Office, said there was no immediate indication of whether the fire appeared to be suspicious or accidental. The first priority was putting it out and securing the scene, he said. A detailed investigation was due to get underway on Friday.
The 6-alarm blaze began in the area of a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk. Fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, it quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town where the MTV series "Jersey Shore" was filmed - and where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.
The blaze destroyed all 32 businesses on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk, borough Councilwoman Nancy Koury told The Associated Press. An undetermined number of additional boardwalk businesses in Seaside Heights also were burned.
A line of powerful thunderstorms that battered part of New Jersey with drenching rain arrived late in the night, after some 400 firefighters had gained the upper hand on the blaze.
The livelihoods of the two popular Jersey shore resort communities depend on summer tourism and they had just spent millions of dollars rebuilding their boardwalks, arcade games, pizza stands and bar and grills to be ready for the summer season. Seaside Heights rushed to rebuild its boardwalk in time for a May visit by Britain's Prince Harry, and finished with only hours to spare.
"It's devastating; I've been crying all afternoon," said Shirley Kreszl, who has rented a summer home in Seaside Park for decades. "Haven't we been hit enough? We try to rebuild and just when we think we saved a little bit of our town, this happens. It's just not fair."
Gov. Chris Christie, who raced to the fire scene, was typically blunt describing his thoughts.
"I feel like I want to throw up," he said.
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.
"I can't believe this is happening," Koury said as she watched the flames devour boardwalk structures. "Our small business people went through so much in the storm to get ready for summer and stay open all summer, and now it's all gone. I just can't believe it."
Officials said the fire got underneath the boardwalk, making it even more difficult to extinguish.
"It's underneath the boards, and its coming up through the cracks," Koury said. "It's making it harder to get water on it."
Matthies said the businesses were primarily wood with tar roofs and shingles, which accelerated the fire.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.