MANTOLOKING, N.J. - Another of the defining images of Hurricane Sandy's destruction is disappearing as New Jersey struggles toward normalcy.
Crews on Thursday began demolishing a house washed into the Barnegat Bay by the violent surge from the Oct. 29 storm. It was one of eight virtually intact homes that the storm washed into bays around the state; work on removing the others will begin soon.
The house, owned by David Roberts, a former mayor of Hoboken, was the most famous of them all, coming to rest 200 feet from shore in the middle of the bay. It once sat not far from where the ocean cut a new channel that chopped Mantoloking in half during the storm, necessitating a massive emergency construction project to fill in the breach.
"Today, one of the unfortunate icons of Mantoloking and Superstorm Sandy is going to be dismantled," Mayor George Nebel said moments before workers on several barges began tearing away at the house and depositing rubble on their vessels, to be floated away and eventually trucked to a landfill. "During the storm, if we were standing where we are today, we would be standing in 12 feet of water. We hope this state will never withstand the sight of a house in the bay again."
Mantoloking was the hardest-hit Shore community. All 521 of its homes were damaged or destroyed, and 58 were swept into Barnegat Bay, either whole or in pieces.
Demolition work on 50 houses too badly damaged to save should begin next week.
Roberts did not attend a news conference before the demolition and did not wish to speak to reporters about it, Nebel said.
Robert Martin, New Jersey's environmental protection commissioner, called the demolition "an important day in the recovery of this state."
Two other virtually intact homes were washed into the bay in Mantoloking, and one in Union Beach, Monmouth County, was washed into Raritan Bay. Four others in Cumberland County's Lawrence Township also wound up in Delaware Bay virtually intact, Martin said. Those houses should be removed from waterways within the next few weeks, the commissioner said.
"These homes, just like the Jet Star roller coaster swept off Casino Pier and sitting in the ocean off Seaside Heights, have become iconic images of just how powerful and devastating Sandy was and how this historic storm changed so many lives," Martin said. "The removal of these homes marks a symbolic benchmark in the progress we've made as New Jersey moves into a new phase of long-term recovery and rebuilding."
Buddy Young, a supervisor with Crowder Gulf, the company hired by the state to remove the house as part of a waterway cleanup plan, said the blueprint was simple: place protective booms around the house to rein in any debris that shakes loose during the demolition, then use barges with special equipment to tear the house into pieces.
Immediately after officials had finished speaking, a large barge with a mechanical claw began attacking the roof of the two-story wooden house, with only the second floor and roof visible above the waterline.
The claw resembled a giant version of the arcade crane games that are so popular on boardwalks just a few miles north and south of Mantoloking. But this was no game; Nebel noted that the house contained framed pictures, clothing, furniture, and other personal items.
The claw kept ripping the equivalent of mechanical handfuls from the roof, pivoting 180 degrees and dropping them in a barge's storage area. With one fistful, a wall came loose and was lifted from the house, exposing a bright pink blanket inside.
Within an hour, half of the top floor had been removed. Young said he expected to have the house gone by Friday afternoon.