Having endured one disaster already, victims of Superstorm Sandy found a temporary refuge in a motel two blocks from the beach in this popular summer resort town.
But the Mariner's Cove Motor Inn became a second disaster scene early Friday when a fast-moving fire tore through it, killing four people, injuring eight others, and displacing several people who had already lost their homes in the October 2012 storm.
"A good number of us were Sandy victims," said James Giannuzzi, who had been staying at the motel because his apartment a few blocks away in Point Pleasant Beach was damaged by the storm. He estimated that about half of the 40 people staying at the motel when the fire broke out were either displaced Sandy victims, or laborers drawn to the area by work opportunities created by the region's need to rebuild.
"I lost everything I had, for a second time," said Giannuzzi, who was visibly shaking as he stood outside the burned motel on Saturday. "I got out with my cellphone and charger and my wallet. I lost my computer and quite a few other things of value. But there are four people who died. We're the lucky ones."
As he spoke, investigators went about the grim task of raking through cinders in second-floor apartments of the 25-unit complex, and draining the motel's outdoor swimming pool, whose plastic light globes melted in the intense heat from the fire 50 feet away.
Autopsies were scheduled for the four victims on Saturday, said Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office.
At the fire scene, Point Pleasant Beach police officer Stephen Pappalardo placed a bouquet of flowers that a passerby had handed him on the ground near the charred motel as arson investigators continued their work.
The fire broke out around 5:30 a.m. Friday and swept across the motel, whose second floor was made of wood. Strong westerly winds fanned the flames and quickly engulfed the building.
Authorities said Keri Anderson, who was seriously burned as she awaited rescue in a shower stall with the water running, remained hospitalized Saturday in the burn unit of St. Barnabas Medical Center. Several other Sandy victims recalled narrowly escaping the fire. They balanced the need to start over a second time with gratitude that their lives had been spared.
An early-morning trip to the bathroom saved Joe Frystock's life. He lost his Brick home in Superstorm Sandy and had been staying in temporary accommodations since then. Frystock, who has diabetes and frequently has to use the bathroom, said he woke up early Friday to find the motel ablaze. As he fled to safety, he pounded on doors and windows, warning fellow motel residents to get out.He left with the clothes on his back, his insulin kit and nothing more."I lost everything — again — but I'm alive," he said.
Frystock said his home in nearby Brick was flooded during Superstorm Sandy with 6 feet of water that tore through his deck "like it was tissue paper." He has lived in rental properties since the storm."It's been an Odyssey ever since Oct. 29, 2012," he said, referring to the date of the destructive storm. "We secured other housing but that fell through" because of the possible threat of additional flooding in the future."Now everything is gone for a second time," he said.
Frystock and the other occupants of the Mariner's Cove Motor Inn were given temporary shelter in other motels in Point Pleasant Beach on Friday. The town is a popular Jersey shore summer resort where the dozen or so hotels and motels rely on people seeking cheap rentals to get them through the slow winter season.
An intense investigation into the cause of the early morning blaze began Friday afternoon after the last of the four bodies was removed and taken away for an autopsy. The victims had not been positively identified Friday.Investigators used 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.
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 — and many of the same arson investigators who probed the boardwalk fire are investigating the motel blaze as well.
Many of those injured in the Friday motel fire had burns and broken bones. Survivors 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, 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 sprained an ankle but said he otherwise was all right.
Lloyd Barker, another motel resident who safely escaped the fire, watched as firefighters rescued the woman."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."
(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)