SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - With the southern tip of the boardwalk still smoldering after Thursday's raging fire, Gov. Christie first met privately Saturday afternoon with dozens of local business owners and state officials in Seaside Heights, and then announced the potential for an immediate $15 million in recovery funds.
The state's Economic Development Authority is expected to take action Wednesday to add that money to the Stronger NJ Business program, now being used in Hurricane Sandy relief. The extra funds will be directed to the fire-ravaged businesses in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, according to a news release Saturday night from Christie's office.
Meeting attendees said earlier in the day that they were encouraged by the possibility of receiving grants of up to $50,000 and low-interest loans of up to $5 million.
Officials from state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Banking and Insurance, and the Department of Human Services were also at the meeting, attendees said. Those officials distributed business cards and pledged to be available during rebuilding efforts.
Bob Stewart, who owns Carousel Arcade, which was wrecked by the fire, expressed a common sentiment when he said that Christie "told us everything we wanted to hear."
Before the meeting, Christie told reporters that the time for mourning was over.
"We had two days to be sad, and it's a legitimately sad thing, but we've got work to do," he said.
While Christie urged people to look forward, several questions about the fire - which decimated four blocks and more than 30 businesses along the boardwalk - remained unanswered Saturday, including how the blaze began.
Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd said an investigation was continuing, but he did call reports of arson "baloney."
There was "no indication of arson at this time," he said.
Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, added that no one at that office has "in any way at all" indicated that the fire was suspicious. He said there was "still no determination on cause."
Also unclear was a timeline on when demolition of the charred remains would begin.
Della Fave said small portions of the rubble were still smoldering, which fire officials had said "was to be expected." He said the fire was contained and had cooled down, but said there was no time set for when the investigation or the firefighting would conclude.
Yellow police tape and barricades prevented anyone from approaching the damaged structures all day Saturday, and most business owners said that because of the continuing investigation and insurance uncertainties, they had little idea when they would be able to start moving forward.
"I don't know how long it's going to take," said Bernt Hage, owner of the Berkeley Sweet Shop, which was totaled by the blaze.
The fire began Thursday at Kohr's Custard Stand in Seaside Park about 2:30 p.m.
It tore through the oldest section of the boardwalk, fueled by 30 m.p.h. winds and tar roofs, and was out of control within 15 minutes.
A graveyard of facades
Firefighters ripped up the rebuilt boardwalk at Lincoln Avenue in Seaside Heights to create a fire trench. And that stopped the flames from spreading farther north by 8 p.m. Thursday.
Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said the maneuver "saved the entire boardwalk" - a sentiment Christie repeated Saturday - and its effects were clearly visible: standing on the boardwalk at Franklin Avenue in Seaside Heights, one could look north and see a colorful, lively oceanfront promenade, while a graveyard of blackened, crumbling facades lay to the south.
Firefighters still battled the blaze into Friday. At its peak, 400 firefighters and 70 engines pumped thousands of gallons of water from the bay and motel pools onto the flames.
On Friday morning, three Seaside Park police officers were injured when they were thrown from a military-style vehicle leaving the scene, Della Fave said. He identified them as Brian Jackowski, 39, and seasonal officers Chelsea Richard, 26, and Daniel Reale, 19. He said Saturday that all three were "stable and recovering," but was not certain whether any were still in the hospital.
Christie visited the surviving portion of the boardwalk just after noon Saturday, taking pictures and shaking hands with scores of admirers who surrounded him. The crowd at times covered nearly two-thirds of the width of the boardwalk, with some passersby yelling slogans like "Jersey Strong" at the governor, who donned a white golf shirt with the Rutgers logo.
Also on the boardwalk was Seaside Park Councilman Andrew Sbordone, who said that he was happy for Christie's continued attention and that he hoped it meant the boardwalk cleanup could begin soon.
"We need to get the debris taken care of, get everything down so people can get to rebuilding," he said. "That's what it's all about."
Rep. Jon Runyan, whose congressional district includes Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, stood near the southern end of the boardwalk Saturday morning and said the devastation was "sickening." He added that he hoped to explore potential help with agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.
"We'll see what programs are available and how we can help the people," he said.
While the devastation of the fire was on the minds of many - with the skeletal structures often drawing large crowds of camera-toting gawkers - hundreds of locals were also happy to partake in the New Heights Festival, celebrating Seaside Heights' centennial.
Originally canceled Thursday night after the fire, the festival went on with fireworks and a bonfire Friday and had a full schedule of events Saturday. It is set to continue Sunday, including vendors, food, and music.
Stacey Picca, attending the festival, watched as her son, Nick, 12, and her husband, Joseph, waited to ride a monster truck.
"It's a beautiful day, so many people," she said. "We have strong people here."
Stewart, Carousel Arcade's owner, said after his meeting with Christie that the spirit of the people was what would help lift the businesses once more.
"It's going to be a long road," he said. "But together we can do this thing."