Mantoloking fire: Multimillion-dollar homes destoryed by ruptured gas lines during Hurricane Sandy

WAYNE PARRY, Associated Press

MANTOLOKING, N.J. — Hurricane Sandy has brought devastation and destruction to areas long accustomed to privilege and easy living.

Most of the multimillion-dollar homes along this old-money stretch of the Jersey shore were seriously damaged by pounding surf, wild wind and, in some cases, fire from ruptured gas lines. Numerous homes were destroyed, and some were obliterated, leaving behind just empty sand or maybe a few broken pilings jutting up out of the surf.

The area remained one of the most dangerous to be in in all of New Jersey on Wednesday: Gas from broken pipes hissed in some places and roared in others, filling the air with the tell-tale rotten egg smell of an additive the gas company mixes with it to alert customers to leaks.

Gas-fueled fires broke out in several spots along the shore since the storm hit late Monday. In numerous instances, firefighters had a hard time getting to them because mounds of sand had piled in the streets, blocking their engines.

"It's catastrophic," Mantoloking Mayor George Nebel said as he walked along Route 35, which was covered with several feet of sand. "So many homes are literally gone."

Pointing to the west he said, "That one is out there in the bay. And over there, in front of that one house, there used to be another one. It's just gone."

But there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries in the area.

Wrecked houses were on either side of Nebel, and the ocean had cut a channel through the town to the Barnegat Bay; a strong current flowed from west to east and effectively cut the borough in two. On the other side of town, which the mayor was trying to reach, a major bridge was closed because a house that had floated away was lodged atop it.

Nebel said he was trying to reach Gov. Chris Christie's office for help in getting the gas turned off and to request help from the National Guard.

In Bay Head, Peter Green was surveying the wreckage of his oceanfront home. As he did, a woman walked up and said she needed a 12-foot piece of wood to help secure the ruins of her own home and asked if she could search through Green's rubble pile. Feel free, he told her.

Green was not as upset by the damage to his home as he was by the fact that looting had already begun. A neighbor told Green she had seen youths walk off with the golf clubs they took from the wreckage of his home.

"There's no law and order here right now to stop looters," he said. "People feel this is an opportunity."

In Mantoloking, however, a police officer brandishing a machine gun stopped three teens walking amid the ruins of wrecked houses, asking why they had backpacks and whether they had taken anything from destroyed homes. The father of one of the teens, walking a few paces behind, vouched for them, and the teens were told to leave the area.

The exchange took place near the Bay Head-Mantoloking border. A passer-by asked the officer, "Is this  Mantoloking?"

"It was," the officer replied.

All along the beach, signs of the good life that the area was known for were strewn about the sand. Hot tubs were knocked sideways, cracked and filled with sea water. In-ground pools were filled with wooden wreckage, shingles, patio furniture and, in one case, a 40-foot-tall flag pole that had been ripped from its moorings 20 feet below the sand.

A blue car from a kiddie ride on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, about 8 miles to the south, was partly buried in the sand, having washed away when the storm destroyed an amusement pier, dumping a roller coaster and other rides into the ocean.

"Can you ever imagine in your life that you would see this?" asked Harry Typaldos, as he surveyed the damage in Bay Head. "This? I just can't comprehend it."

Gene Mulvey, of neighboring Point Pleasant, who left his own flooded community on his bicycle to see the damage along the beachfront, said, "It's almost too much to wrap your mind around."

On Route 35 in Bay Head, a surf shop whose motto has long been "pray for surf" was boarded up, with a red hurricane icon spray-painted next to the words "Pray for safety."

By mid-afternoon, Bay Head had made significant progress scooping sand from Route 35 with front-end loaders and dumping it into huge dump trucks, which then dumped it back onto the beach.

But it was clear it would be several days before the streets could reopen and far, far longer than that for life to return to some semblance of normal on this traumatized stretch of the Jersey shore.

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