NJ governor vows to rebuild burnt towns, U.S. aid sought

By Dave Warner

SEASIDE PARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vowed on Friday to rebuild two resort towns ravaged by a boardwalk fire just months after they were restored in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, while state officials put out a call for federal aid.

About 100 firefighters remained on the scene on Friday, putting out hot spots after containing the fire which started at a frozen custard stand in Seaside Park on Thursday and blazed out of control for hours, moving several blocks into neighboring Seaside Heights.

Christie said state agencies were ready to help residents rebuild again and praised local resilience after Sandy pummeled the New Jersey coast in October 2012.

"We have endured and begun to come back from the devastation of Sandy. We will not let these fires destroy those efforts," he told a news conference on Friday.

New Jersey Congressman Jon Runyan, a Republican, will seek federal dollars to pay for the recovery effort in his district, and has reached out to Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said spokesperson Stacy Barton.

Fellow New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, a Democrat who represents a nearby district, supports the effort to use federal dollars to help the two towns, said spokesperson Ray Zaccaro.

It could cost an estimated total of $1.4 million to rebuild destroyed sections of both boardwalks, said Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies.

At least 30 businesses were damaged by the fire, Christie said, including such Jersey Shore favorites as Bubba's Dog House, Kupper's French Fries and Maruca's Tomato Pies.

The incident, including the cause of the fire, was being investigated by county and state agencies, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Christie said.

"It's piles of rubble, it's piles of just char and debris, caved-in buildings with no walls and no roofs," said Brian Gabriel, chief fire coordinator for Ocean County. "It just looks like a bomb went off."

WCBS-TV reported that witnesses said they saw electrical wires under the custard stand catch fire. The fire then burned through the stand and spread, the witnesses told WCBS-TV.

Seaside Heights was the setting of MTV's reality show "Jersey Shore" and more recently became famous as the site of one of the most memorable images of Sandy: a roller coaster that fell into the Atlantic Ocean, where it stood, partially submerged by the waves.

Britain's Prince Harry also was drawn to the Seaside Heights boardwalk in the spring to cheer its rebuilding after Sandy.

Both communities were hardhit by Sandy, and it cost $3 million to rebuild the Seaside Heights boardwalk and $600,000 to rebuild the Seaside Park boardwalk, both using FEMA dollars, said Seaside Park Borough Councilwoman Nancy Koury.

The blaze destroyed businesses over a total of six blocks in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights and damaged a historic carousel that had survived Sandy, officials said.

Gawking at the fire damage was Pat Burneyko, 63, who drove from her home in Kearney, New Jersey, about an hour away, to see what happened to the summertime resort she has been coming to since the 1950s.

"It's bad. The merry-go-round I rode when I was a kid, and I took my kids and grandkids on is gone," Burneyko said.

Christie declared a state of emergency on Thursday after surveying the damage and declaring that it made him want to "throw up."

Both Seaside Heights and Seaside Park were badly damaged during Sandy in October 2012.

Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina, devastated the New Jersey coast. The state estimated the damage at $37 billion.

The blaze was fanned by wind gusts that reached 40 miles per hour, though the 400 firefighters who were fighting the fire at its peak were aided by an overnight rainstorm.

Crews cut two 20-foot breaks into the wooden boardwalks and piled sand in the voids in makeshift dunes to stop flames from spreading.

(The story corrects paragraph 5 to "will seek" instead of "has sought" and "Housing and Urban" instead of "House and Urban".)

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Jeffrey Benkoe, Steve Orlofsky and Richard Chang)

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