David Gard / AP
Published Friday, March 21, 2014 | 8:59 a.m.
Updated Friday, March 21, 2014 | 3:37 p.m.
POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. — A fire early Friday destroyed a New Jersey shore motel that was housing people displaced by Superstorm Sandy, killing four people and injuring eight, authorities said.
The blaze erupted at the wooden Mariner's Cove Motor Inn in this popular summer resort town at around 5:30 a.m., and flames were shooting out the building by the time firefighters arrived. At least one person leaped from a second-floor window to escape.
Three people were injured critically. Other injuries included broken bones.
The discovery of a fourth victim was announced Friday afternoon just before firefighters removed the body on a stretcher. Authorities said all remaining occupants had been accounted for after hours of visiting hospitals, motels and other locations to track down other survivors.
The victims were identified as male adults, but the prosecutor's office said no positive identifications had been made and the cause of the blaze was unknown.
After the bodies were slid on stretchers down ladders to the ground, investigators brought out dogs specially trained to react to the presence of gasoline or other petroleum products that might have been used to start or accelerate a fire. The dogs sniffed at charred items and building debris at the curb and alongside the motel's outdoor swimming pool, but showed no obvious reaction to anything.
Task Force One, New Jersey's elite urban search and rescue team that has responded to disaster scenes around the world, also joined the investigation, which was expected to take days.
The blaze was the second major fire at the Jersey shore in seven months, following a September blaze that destroyed about a third of the boardwalk in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park. The boardwalk had just been rebuilt after Sandy. It is now being rebuilt — again.
Survivors of Friday's motel fire described a chaotic scene of flames, smoke and screaming.
Peter Kuch said he smelled smoke and opened his door to find a lounge area engulfed in flames. He dialed 911 to seek help, and by the time the call was completed, the flames were at his door and licking at the windows of his second-floor unit.
He decided to jump.
"I had to, there was no other way out," he said. "My window was only open an inch and flames were already starting to come through it. There just was no other choice."
He suffered a sprained ankle but said he was otherwise all right.
Joe Frystock was one of the Sandy victims who was staying at the motel, which like many others in this resort, relies on people seeking low-cost rentals during the slow winter season. His home in nearby Brick Township took on 6 feet of water during the October 2012 storm, and the motel was the latest in a series of temporary homes for him.
"I lost everything — again — but I'm alive," he said. "I only got out with my insulin kit, but this is what keeps me alive, so I guess I'm lucky."
Frystock, who is diabetic, said he woke up to the cracking sound of wood burning, and saw an orange glow.
"People were yelling: 'Help me! Help me!' There was lots of screaming," he said. "A woman in the unit next to me, they pulled her from a bathtub, but I don't know how anyone could have survived those flames. The entire second floor was engulfed, from one end to another."
That woman, who had sought refuge in a shower and kept the water running on her while waiting to be rescued, was pulled from the bathroom by one firefighter, who handed her out a window to another firefighter, who carried her down a ladder to safety. The woman was taken to St. Barnabas Medical Center, a hospital about an hour north that specializes in treating severe burns, which Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said she had suffered.
Lloyd Barker, another motel resident who safely escaped the fire, watched as firefighters rescued her.
"She was screaming, there was fire over her head," he said. "She was all black, from head to toe. It was chaos."
Denise Dougherty, the motel's housekeeper, said she was awakened by screams.
"There were people yelling, 'Help me! Help me!' and other people yelling, 'Jump! Jump!' It was terrible."
Shawn Wardell said a strong wind was fanning the flames across the second floor of the motel, where he had been staying with his cousin and grandparents.
"We got my grandfather out 'cause he's disabled, and by that time the whole second floor was just engulfed in flames," he said. "People were yelling and screaming."
Residents gave conflicting accounts of whether they heard smoke detectors or fire alarms sounding. Some said they heard nothing, while others said a fire alarm was blaring as the flames were sweeping eastward across the top of the building.
The Ocean County Sheriff's Department said one of the injured included one of its detectives, who suffered a severe leg injury, including broken bones, at the fire scene.
Investigators determined about 40 people were staying there when the fire broke out, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said. The motel's office was destroyed and many records were lost, he said, making an accurate accounting difficult.
Volunteer and county social service agencies placed the surviving motel residents in other rental units in town.