Radio communications between dispatchers and fire crews fighting Thursday's devastating Seaside Park fire reveal just how complex and confusing it was to battle a blaze that turned out to be not just on the boardwalk but also hidden below it.
“Station 45. Report of flames showing under the boardwalk near the Sawmill,” a dispatcher is heard saying on radio transmissions analyzed by NBC10.com and provided by PhillyFireNews.com.
That first call went out at 2:20 p.m. with an assistant fire chief being dispatched to The Sawmill Café at Stockton Avenue. Two minutes later, the assistant chief asked for a fire crew.
“Be advised, heavy smoke condition,” he said. “Re-dispatch my company for a confirmed fire at the boardwalk. It appears to be coming out of the Kohr’s ice cream store.”
A minute after that, dispatchers ask if more fire crews should be called. The chief says one station seems to be enough.
The fire, however, appeared to have been creeping and growing under the boards.
It wasn’t until nearly nine minutes into the response that crews realized they needed backup.
Officials call for a second crew, Station 44.
Ten minutes in, crews find the first flames near the rear of Kohr’s Frozen Custard shop, just across the boardwalk from the Sawmill Café.
Next, crews call for a third set of responders, Station 28.
Meanwhile, the first responders ask that saws be brought in to create a barrier in the boardwalk to try and starve the flames of fuel.
"We’re going to make a cut in the boardwalk here and make a trench to try and stop it," a firefighter says over the radio.
Crews would later do the same, on a larger scale, ripping up a 20-foot section of the boardwalk at Lincoln and Ocean Avenues to stop the fire’s northward spread.
The power just got shut off. They're cutting the boardwalk now to try and prevent the fire from spreading.
— Alex Cav (@AlexxCav) September 12, 2013
A lack of manpower and the availability of water continually handicapped fire crews during the firefight, according to the audio transmissions.
Answering questions about the response on Friday, Ocean County Chief Fire Coordinator Brian Gabriel called the first three hours of the fire "bedlam" and said it was as organized as possible.
"I'll take any one of yous and you show up here and see how much fire was coming out this building and you tell me whether you would have been overwhelmed or not," he said. "These guys acted professionally, they made the decisions that they made, knowing that they were going to have an advancing fire, OK?"
Rapid response teams were called to the scene from nearby towns like Toms River and Mantoloking, but they weren’t enough to fight the fast-moving fire.
"We need more bodies," one fireman says 20 minutes into the fire response. Fifteen minutes after that, another firefighter calls for more help to fight flames on the defunct Funtown Pier, which was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy. But there aren’t enough firefighters to go around.
"I think we need to request more mutual aid," one commander says.
"We have, but they’re not coming fast enough," a firefighter responds.
More than 400 firefighters from counties across the state were eventually called in to join the fight.
Access to water was another hurdle crews had to overcome.
In a press briefing Friday morning, Governor Chris Christie touted a new water delivery system, called Neptune, that allowed crews to pump water from the bay. He also acknowledged that not all of the town’s infrastructure is operational post-Sandy.
“They’re not all 100-percent rebuilt,” he said. “We had significant capacity last night through the water system, but we also had a fire that was being fed by 30 mile per hour winds out of the south.”
The governor added that water had to be pumped out of motel and hotel swimming pools.
However, with all those efforts, crews still screamed for more water to drench the flames.
“Where’s the water on the rear,” one firefighter asks 20 minutes into the blaze.
"There is no water, I’m working on it," another responds.
Thirty-minutes into the fire, a chief asks officials to contact the water department and have water pumps turned on full blast.
“We’re going to need them to kick the pumps up and get everything going because we’re going to need a lot of water,” he said.
In the meantime, the fire spreads to more structures and into the air.
Crews reported having buildings exposed to flames and embers flying into the sky. Those embers started a fire at a condominium complex four blocks north. Luckily, those flames were extinguished before spreading.
Despite denials from officials and Gov. Christie, there were also reports of explosions inside structures engulfed in flames.
“Multiple explosions inside the building,” one official said over the radio just after asking for more engine companies to be dispatched.
While it has been widely reported that the fire started either at or around Kohr’s Frozen Custard, eyewitness accounts and radio calls paint a different picture.
Kohr’s employee Christine Hemingway told NBC10 smoke was seen rising from the boardwalk outside the shop, which she was helping close for the season, when the fire suddenly grew.
"Our manager came running through the stand and said 'get out,'" Hemingway said. "We go around the corner in front of Biscayne Candy and there was smoke coming up from the boardwalk. There was a little smoke and then all of a sudden, it got real thick and black."
Dispatcher communications also show the first call was for a report of fire under the boardwalk and that Kohr’s fire alarm did not activate until minutes after crews arrived on the scene.
“I’m sure it’s related chief, but you’re getting a fire alarm activation at Kohr’s Custard,” the dispatcher radios.
Bruce Kohr, owner of the boardwalk shop, told NBC News the electricity had already been shut down in his shop as it was being closed up for the winter.
"The walk-ins [large refrigerators] were cleaned out, the breakers were off, the store was de-energized," he said adding that workers were “getting it ready for the winter” when the fire began.
Asked if he’s heard from investigators, Kohr says he hasn’t heard from 'any officials.'
— WCAlerts (@WCAlerts) September 12, 2013
Officials have said it is too early to determine the cause of the fire, but the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office has put out a call for photos and videos taken near the scene just before the fire began.
Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the county and state fire marshals are on the scene.
The fire is also being treated as a crime scene, both measures, officials say, is standard protocol.