UNIOIN COUNTY — When Elizabeth Deputy Fire Chief Lathey Wirkus heard the Seaside boardwalk fire was a raging inferno burning out of control, he knew Union County had something that could help battle the blaze.
One of only three in the state and at the ready to aid firefighters in case there was ever a terrorist attack on the oil tank fields along Routes 1 and 9, the Neptune Pumper had been tagged the super hero of firefighting equipment. Bought with Homeland Security funds, this pumper could not only move up to 15,000 gallons of water a minute, but is the only equipment in the state capable of pulling water out of the bay.
Wirkus called the water cannon an “iron gun” that could easily throw water 400 feet, which it did last Friday when all efforts to put out the fast moving fire fueled by 30 mile-per-hour winds continued to spread at an alarming rate.
But during the nine-hours it took to put out the fire that destroyed 50 businesses and caused as much as $10 million in damages, the only thought firefighters from all over the state had on their mind was to gain control of the wind-whipped flames that threatened to destroy the entire boardwalk. There would be time later to discover exactly what caused the fire and whether it was arson or accidental.
Official word came down from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Tuesday afternoon ruling the fire an accident, electrical in nature and started at Kohr’s Ice Cream.
The Neptune pumper uses two hydraulically powered pumps that are lowered into the water by a platform ladder truck. Once there, it supplies the pump with water through an eight-inch supply line. But the Iron Man nozzle is the real workhorse that controlled the flow of bay water onto the inferno. Although this fire-fighting piece of equipment was key in getting water from the bay to the boardwalk which was four blocks away, not every firefighter is trained to use this pumper.
Wirkus explained that the Union County Neptune Task Force has trained since 2005 to use this equipment, and thanks to constant drills under Elizabeth Deputy Chief Carl Heitmeyer, they were ready when the call came Sept. 13. The task force, comprised of the Elizabeth, Union, Linden, Hillside, Kenilworth, Roselle and Millburn fire departments, was trained to use the 12 foam tenders carrying 4,000 gallons of foam concentrate each, making up to 48,000 gallons of foam concentrate available for emergency fire incidents. But in the case of the Seaside boardwalk fire, water was needed, and a lot of it.
As the Elizabeth fire department sped down the Parkway with the Neptune Pumper in tow, their only thought was reaching the 10-alarm blaze and aiding their fire-fighting brothers who came from all over the state when the call for mutual aid went out. They had gone through the drill many times and were ready to put all they knew into action.
Monday Wirkus was humbled by the press he received since the boardwalk fire was extinguished, preferring to attribute the effort to every firefighter who joined forces that day. Like all firefighters, he is well aware that standing just feet from a raging fire that billows hundreds of feet into the sky is no place for cowards.
But it is what firefighters do, even when their lives are in imminent danger.
More than 30 firefighters from Elizabeth, Kenilworth, Linden, Roselle and Union were at the command center in Seaside Park last Friday to ensure the Neptune pumper and all its components were quickly assembled and put into action. Firefighters would stay through the night to battle the blaze along with hundreds of others, their faces streaked with soot, arms weary from hauling heavy hoses and manning posts that were dangerously close to the inferno. When the fire was officially declared under control, night had fallen and a huge swath of the iconic boardwalk looked like a bomb hit it, not a fire.
Friday, as small pockets still smoldered and flared, Gov. Chris Christie made a vow to New Jersey residents.
“We lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens but we will rebuild,” the governor promised, adding “we’ll make new memories for our families because that is what we do.”