TODAY   |  September 13, 2013

Chief: NJ boardwalk fire ‘came too hard, too fast’

Chief Brian Gabriel, fire coordinator for Ocean County, NJ, tells TODAY that crews battling the Seaside Heights boardwalk fire had to destroy part of the newly rebuilt boardwalk to create a fire break.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> now to the jersey shore . another round of devastation is taking it's toll on a community still recovering from hurricane sandy. this time, it's a raging fire. you see the live imagines there of the devastation. kristen is in seaside park where the flames are still smolderring this morning. good morning to you.

>> good morning, savannah. take a look behind me and you can see we are now about 16 hours after this started, they're still spraying it down with water trying to get any hotspots. that shows you just how bad this fire was. four blocks of this boardwalk are gone and you guys know, you were hear just a few months ago and blocks from here when governor christie reopened the boardwalk after sandy. this morning, people are waking up to the reality that they were wrong.

>> this is obviously just unthinkable situation for us to be standing here and watching this.

>> reporter: the thick, black smoke could be seen for miles as wind-swept flames devoured the boardwalk , taking down business after business. many that just reopened after being devastated by super storm sandy.

>> this is going to be worse than sandy to tell you the truth.

>> bringing in buckets of water.

>> reporter: the "today" show was just there when the boardwalk reopened in there.

>> a very simple recipe.

>> reporter: now.

>> do you think anything is left?

>> no, it's flattened.

>> reporter: he was there as the fire first caught thursday afternoon.

>> suddenly black smoke came billowing out from underneath the boardwalk .

>> there's stores on fire. don't go in.

>> don't go in there.

>> reporter: moments captured on the home video first seen on news 12 new jersey. once it started it was almost impossible to stop.

>> there was a wind that must have been 35 miles per hour blowing out of the south that fuelled the flames.

>> reporter: within hours the fire grew to 10 alarms. some 400 firefighters from around the state in a desperate battle, forced to fight the blaze from above and used heavy machinery to tear into the newly built boardwalk to create a fire break . but with 80% of the businesses already gutted, in many cases it was too late.

>> when i got my first full briefing i said to my staff, i feel like i want to throw up. that's me.

>> reporter: governor chris christie took in the devastation just 3 1/2 months after he reopened the boardwalk memorial day weekend . a place that for so many was the essence of this new jersey town.

>> this is my whole childhood. this is not even a year after sandy. this is what happens. i feel terrible for these people.

>> reporter: people waking up this morning to start rebuilding yet again.

>> listen, this is us. as soon as this is over. we'll pick ourselves up, we'll dust ourselves off and we'll get back to work.

>> they talk about jersey strong around here but take a look from the air, you can see the scope of what they have to deal with. the cause of the fire is still under investigation. it's still too early to determine the financial loss but the emotional toll here really maybe much greater. think about this, tim who we spoke to in the piece, he had to flee in sandy. some of the things he saved from his house like baby pictures he was storing here. those, now are gone. back to you matt and savannah.

>> wow, thank you very much. look back at that video, the ribbon cutting . we were all there memorial day weekend with the governor. emotions were soaring at that time because they accomplished so much in such a short period of time.

>> there was energy and excitement and pride that it had been rebuilt and it's devastating to think this area that's gone through so much has to face it again.

>> yeah, we have a guest now. brian gabriel is the chief fire coordinator for the county. good morning to you.

>> how are you?

>> i'm doing okay. the question is, how are you? are there still hotspots you're concerned about this morning?

>> yeah, we still have a few hotspots. basically the center southern section of the fire perimeter. we're not overly concerned about them but it's more a matter of getting our job done.

>> the imagines from the height of this fire are startling. it looked like a wall of flames. i guess fwaned by the wind and all of that wood. what was your biggest challenge?

>> biggest challenge was the wind and wind driven fire brand, embers, blowing fire out ahead of us, behind us. that was a big issue. the wind was the biggest factor here.

>> i understand that at one point firefighter hearsay to cut a trench to stop the fire and actually had to cut through brand new boardwalk so the fire wouldn't jump over it.

>> we had to do that twice, sir. first time we put all of our defenses in place and the fire just came on too hard, too fast. we just couldn't do anything with it. we dropped back to our second point of defense and we did the same thing over again. cut another trench in the brand new boardwalk unfortunately. and that's where we made a stand and that's where all the units who did one heck of a job, put this fire -- basically stopped the forward progression of this fire.

>> you guys not only work in that area, you live in that area as well, brian . what are the emotions like this morning?

>> well, i think on the fire side, i think our guys are good. our guys are just tired. i don't think there's anything emotional right now after what we have been through in the last year here. i think the emotional side is feeling bad for all the business owners trying to get themselves back up and running.

>> we wish you guys luck. brian gabriel, thank you for talking to us this morning,