Posts Tagged ‘Surf Avenue fire in Ocean Grove’

The lot at 26 Atlantic remains empty. Next to it, Heinz Weck's new yellow and white house is almost complete. To its right, 32 Atlantic has a new roof and other repairs are underway. Behind these, facing Surf Avenue, is the fast-rising new condo development. Photo by Charles Layton

By Yvette Blackman, Contributing Writer @blogfinger

Surf and Atlantic avenues are like almost any other block in Ocean Grove where new homes are going up. For months since the fire last March, residents have been navigating past the inevitable construction trailer or waste container jutting into the narrow streets.

The wind-driven fire destroyed or severely damaged seven homes and an old hotel which was being converted to condos. More than two dozen people were displaced, including renters who had no insurance. Some renters never returned to Surf and Atlantic. Some homeowners — those with roots in the community, some for whom these were second homes — have moved on. Four are in various stages of rebuilding; two are selling.

Here’s a glimpse of where things stand with the properties that suffered the greatest damage:

— At 27 Surf, where the fire started in the basement of the old hotel, the nine-unit condo building is rising fast. Gone is the cottage at No. 25, its tiny footprint swallowed up in the new construction. A chain link fence forms a protective sentry around the four-story building, most of which is framed and covered with sheets of plywood. A row of front windows at the top remains exposed to the elements.

— The empty lot at 31 Surf has a James J. Pentz, Realtors sign that went up October 12. To date, no formal offers have been submitted on the 30-foot-by-64-foot lot, the only south-facing lot for sale just two blocks from the beach, according to realtor Karen Pentz.

— New windows have been installed and framing is under way at 33 Surf, a single-family home wrapped in plywood and Tyvek insulation.

— The two-family house at 32 Atlantic has a new roof, and plywood covers the front windows. The back of the home is wrapped in Tyvek.

— A century 21 “Lot For Sale” sign is posted on the vacant lot at 30 Atlantic. No offers have been submitted since the sign went up about a month after the fire.

— At 28 Atlantic, the two-story yellow house with white trim, owned by Heinz Weck, appears near complete. The interior was fully lit late one night this week, and a ceiling fan was whirring in what appeared to be an empty living room. The front yard is filled with dirt and sand.

— The lot at 26 Atlantic looks like a well-worn path, coated in mud, a few leaves and very little else.

— No. 24 1/2 Atlantic, which a fire marshal’s report said sustained moderate damage, is boarded up with mold growing on the siding.

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By Charles Layton

The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, it seems, is still not telling all it knows about the March 11 fire that destroyed a former hotel and six homes on Surf and Atlantic avenues in Ocean Grove.

We reported last week that the fire may have been caused by a gas heater in the old hotel’s basement. (Go here to reread that story.)

We also reported on the refusal of officials in the county fire marshal’s office and the county prosecutor’s office to tell the public what they know about the investigation of that fire. (Go here for our editorial on that.)

A central question is whether the gas heater, which was used to provide heat for construction workers at the site, might have been left burning and unattended the night before the fire. (The fire was reported at 5:11 on the following morning.)

On Thursday, in a telephone interview, Assistant County Prosecutor Chris Decker told us that the evidence “did not enable the investigators to determine with certainty whether the heater was left on.”

Asked if investigators had asked the construction workers at the site whether the heater was left burning, Decker said the workers had indeed been interviewed. However, he said, “I can’t get into what individual people said.”

When asked whether a night watchman or guard had been present at any time during the night, he said, “The scene was left secured the night before. My understanding is the area was locked. That’s all I can say, I don’t know any more.”

He did not provide answers when asked about the type of heater and whether it was in good working condition.

He said his office had conducted “a thorough, thorough, exhaustive investigation” and that “based upon the investigation and evidence, there is no evidence supporting criminal charges.”

Asked whether, regardless of the issue of criminality, county officials would consent to provide the people of Ocean Grove with a complete account, in writing, of their investigative findings about the fire’s cause, Decker did not offer much hope.

“I’ve released all I can release,” he finally said.

On another front, Blogfinger reporter Yvette Blackman placed a call to County Fire Marshal Henry A. Stryker, III on Wednesday of last week, seeking information about his office’s investigation of the fire. She still has not heard back from Stryker.

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Surf Avenue, March 11. Photo by John Gallagher

By Yvette Blackman, Contributing Writer @Blogfinger

The fire that started in a former hotel and spread to numerous homes on Surf and Atlantic avenues last March may have been caused by a gas heater in the hotel’s basement, according to a report obtained by Blogfinger but never made public by fire investigators.

In the days leading up to the fire, this report explains, construction crews were working to convert the run-down hotel at 27 Surf Avenue and an adjacent cottage at 25 Surf Avenue into a nine-unit condominium complex. The interior of the four-story hotel had been demolished, stairs were removed, and workers had begun framing the walls and floors.

The report, which was prepared by the Monmouth County Fire Marshal’s office, says: “Heat for the structure was a gas fired hot air heater installed in the basement to provide heat for the construction workers.”

The report does not mention the possibility that the heater could have been left burning and unattended after the workers had departed for the day on Thursday, March 10. Police said the fire was reported at 5:11 a.m. on Friday, March 11 – before the next workday had begun.

“The area in and around the placement of the heating unit showed the heaviest charring” on what remained of the framed walls and floor following the fire, the report says.

The report, which is undated, is signed by Deputy Fire Marshal Vito Marra. It was provided to Blogfinger by a homeowner who obtained a copy of it in August, under a cover letter signed by County Fire Marshal Henry A. Stryker, III.

Although this report is the most specific account yet brought to light, it raises as many questions as it answers. It says nothing about the working condition of the heater prior to the fire. And it does not say whether investigators interviewed the workmen or pursued other leads to determine whether the heater had been left burning.

A call on Wednesday seeking comment from Stryker was not returned.

Very few people seem to have seen this report. David Shotwell Jr., spokesman for the Ocean Grove Fire Department, was reluctant to even discuss it with Blogfinger. “We have not seen any report nor have we been informed of this by the prosecutor’s office,” Shotwell said.

Ever since the day after the fire, county officials have been saying they thought its cause was accidental rather than criminal. Assistant County Prosecutor Chris Decker told Blogfinger last Friday, “The fire was ruled accidental.” However, despite repeated requests for definitive information about the investigation, almost no details have been shared with the press or the general public, either by the prosecutor’s office, the fire marshal’s office or any other official source.

“We don’t distribute reports,” Decker said. Asked to explain the long delay in sharing his office’s findings with the public, he said, “I had to wait for our reports to be finalized … for our case to be closed, so to speak, before I could actually disseminate the information. But we don’t disseminate reports.”

Decker also said: “We’re not able to determine with complete certainty the origin of the fire.”

As early as the morning of the fire, witnesses were telling Blogfinger that it had started in the basement of the old Surf Avenue hotel. No one has disputed that.

The old hotel and the adjacent cottage were once owned by Heinz Weck. Developer Hans Kretschman purchased the properties from Weck on December 2, 2010, but the report incorrectly names Weck as the owner. A month after the purchase, the Historic Preservation Commission approved Kretschman’s plans to build a condominium complex there. That work was underway when the fire occurred.

The fire spread to and destroyed homes at 31 and 33 Surf. Four neighboring homes on Atlantic Avenue – 26, 28, 30 and 32 – suffered severe damage and were either demolished or deemed uninhabitable. Six homes on the two streets sustained minor to moderate damage, as did five vehicles.

No one died in the fire, but it rekindled a fear that had surfaced after the 2010 Ocean Pathway fire that wiped out five homes and the historic Manchester Inn. That fire occurred almost exactly one year before the Surf Avenue fire. Fire officials determined that it was accidental and that it started in a basement — at the Manchester Inn.

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