NEW YORK — Nick Dionisio is a third-generation boardwalk guy, having peeled shrimp as a 7-year-old in his grandfather’s clam bar. Later he decided to go into banking, but when the markets collapsed, he came back to what he knew. He even pulled his father out of retirement to help him start a fried-fish place, and then another that was a little more upscale.
Dionisio was still trying to make up the cost of starting the businesses when Hurricane Sandy hit 10 months ago, flooding them with 9 feet of water and ruining expensive equipment. His father died unexpectedly just weeks later. The electricity and gas were restored only five days before Memorial Day, the weekend when boardwalk places typically make up much of their rent. But summer business was terrible, with so many renters and tourists staying away. Still, Dionisio kept going because he loved it.
The fire in the Jersey Shore towns of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights on Thursday did to Park Seafood, in Seaside Park, what the hurricane had not: It destroyed it. Flames ravaged about five blocks of boardwalk in the two towns, which had been among the towns hardest hit by the storm. As Dionisio and other business owners surveyed the rubble Friday, they struggled to summon what it would take to start over so soon after starting over.
“It’s like someone who’s in a war,” Dionisio, 34, said in a phone interview. “After a time, they’re so used to seeing destruction, they become numb to it.”
“Everything has been a bad dream already,” he added. “To have this happen, it hasn’t even hit me yet. This sums up how awful this year has been. It doesn’t get any worse than what it is right now.”
Investigators had roped off the scene with yellow police tape and declared it a crime scene, though the governor and local officials would not go so far as to speculate that the blaze was arson. They said only that the cause was unknown, and that the fire, which apparently began in an ice cream shop, had been fueled by tar roofs and unusually strong winds.
Officials estimated the fire had damaged between 30 and 50 businesses. “Places where decades of memories were built for families are destroyed,” Governor Chris Christie said in a morning news conference — beloved institutions like Jack-N-Bills Bar, Maruca’s Tomato Pies, Berkeley Sweet Shop, and countless balloon and souvenir stands.
Christie vowed to “get aggressive and rebuild,” as he did when he visited the area last October and declared the Jersey Shore of his childhood gone. “I will not permit all the work we’ve done over the last 10 months to be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night,” he said.
But those left said they were not sure how they could.
“I have it in me to do it,” said Dionisio, who is married and has two children younger than 3. “Financially, I don’t know if I can make it happen. You spend all this money and then this happens, it doesn’t seem you can catch a break.”
Officials in the two towns said they were lucky that no one had died — on weekends, the boardwalk adjoining their beaches can be filled with tens of thousands of people; the fire happened just weeks after families had departed for the start of school.
And the continuing work to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy provided a small saving grace: Construction equipment that had been in use nearby was moved up the beach to cut the 25-foot-wide trench that finally halted flames that had burned for nearly six hours.
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t get old,” said Bill Akers, the mayor of Seaside Heights. “The only good thing about it is, when we went through it the first time, we were flying by the seat of our pants because no one had been through anything like that.” This time, Akers said, the towns have engineering plans to rebuild the boardwalks, and lumber companies and builders are already engaged.
But it would be easier, he acknowledged, to rebuild the boards than to recreate the businesses, many of which did not have fire insurance.
“I know a lot of people who put themselves back together after Sandy went into their own resources,” he said. “That’s kind of running dry right now.”
Local officials, the governor and state economic development officials invited business owners who had suffered damage to a meeting on Saturday to discuss financial help.
Investigators from the Ocean County prosecutor’s office were brought in to comb for clues to the cause.