Published March 21, 2014
Firefighters found a fourth body at the scene of a devastating fire at a motel on the New Jersey shore Friday. Authorities say several other occupants who had been missing have now been accounted for.
Eight people were also injured in the early morning blaze that destroyed the Mariner's Cove Motor Inn in Point Pleasant Beach. The motel was housing several people displaced by Superstorm Sandy. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Eyewitnesses say the flames spread quickly through the two-story wooden building two blocks from the beach.
"Within five minutes, literally, it was in flames," one witness told the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said three males died in the blaze and eight people were injured. The fourth body has not yet been identified.
Several of the injured sustained serious burns, including one woman who was rescued by firefighters after she holed up in a shower to escape smoke and flames.
Coronato said the search and recovery phase of the investigation will continue until officials are certain they've accounted for the approximately 40 people who were registered at the motel.
Tom Vogel, who lives in the area, told The Asbury Park Press that the building "went up like a Christmas tree."
The motel was completely decimated. Most of its occupants work in the fishing industry or are building contractors in the area.
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 in the storm, and the motel was the latest in a series of temporary homes for him.
Frystock, who is diabetic, said he frequently has to use the bathroom at night. He woke up to popping sounds, which he initially thought was gunfire.
"It was the sound of timbers burning upstairs," he said. "I looked out and saw that orange glow, and there was no mistaking what it was. People were yelling: `Help me! Help me!' There was lots of screaming. 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 shelter in a shower and kept the water running while waiting to be rescued, was pulled from the bathroom by Firefighter Mike Ryan, who handed her out a window to Firefighter Justin Leach, who carried her down a ladder to safety. The woman was taken to the burn unit of St. Barnabas Medical Center, a hospital about an hour north that specializes in treating severe burns, which Coronato said she had suffered.
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."
Investigators were looking into what caused the fire.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.