Firefighters from Ocean City and several other cities battled a fire on the upper floors of the dilapidated Bellevue Hotel in Ocean City for several hours on Friday.
The fire is under control, and nobody was injured in the firefighting effort.
Demolition of the abandoned building began on Thursday, and crews were continuing work on Friday (Sept. 28) when the fire started about 10:30 a.m.
"The demolition team on location had been removing a fire escape from the north side of the building using acetylene torches," Fire Chief Christopher Breuenig said in a news conference. "Upon taking a morning break, upon returning, they noticed smoke coming from the top part of the eaves of the four-story section."
Breunig said he was first on the scene and noticed heavy smoke coming from the roof the four-story section in the back of the six-story hotel. Within minutes a constant blare of sirens could be heard throughout the island as all Ocean City units responded to the fire, and all off-duty firefighters were called in. Companies from Marmora, Somers Point, Linwood, Margate, Scullville and Bargaintown (Egg Harbor Township) also responded.
Because the building is structurally unsound, no firefighters entered the hotel to fight the fire. The hotel had been unoccupied for more than a year.
"Due to the condition of the building, we were not going to send any of our guys in there to risk any further harm," Breunig said. "We set up a defensive operation on the building on all four corners and used aerial apparatus to extinguish the fire. It was a team effort, not only from our own guys, but from Atlantic and Cape May counties."
The fire created a spectacle in Ocean City on Friday as smoke poured from the hotel for most of day, overflow water from the engines flooded the streets and onlookers gathered to watch the response. Firefighters also worked to protect neighboring properties from the spread of the fire.
The nearby Scarborough Inn announced it would close for the weekend due to smoke damage and loss of power.
The operator of an excavator that overturned on a pile of wood during the firefighting effort was uninjured. He had been working to knock down parts of the building to give fire hoses better access to the flames.
Demolition work at the century-old six-story hotel began on Thursday. The first stage of work involved asbestos removal, and public safety officials warned bystanders to keep a safe distance from the scene. They urged common sense for homeowners downwind of the fire to close windows and for pedestrians to avoid breathing the smoke.
"There is great concern about the possible toxicity that’s out there," Breunig said. "Under normal conditions of any demolition, asbestos removal is always part of it. The asbestos being removed is less than 2 percent capacity and does not pose an immediate life threat or hazard to the community. We enlisted the county CBRNE team. They come in and do air testing and quality testing of the environment locally. They did not find any significant readings within our local area. We do not believe that anyone has suffered any health hazard at this point."
Closed for more than a year, the hotel had recently been declared unsafe by city inspectors. The demolition effort appears likely to be the cause of the fire.
"At this time, local investigators and the Cape May County prosecutor believe the cause was accidental and was caused by the acetylene torches to remove the fire escape on the side of the building," Breunig said. "And there’s quite a bit of evidence — when I arrived on location, they were on a cherry picker using extinguishers putting out that area that they had just got done cutting."
Crews worked Friday night to demolish the rest of the four-story section of the hotel, so firefighters could completely extinguish the smoldering building.
"Demolition is going to proceed as planned," Breunig said. "It’s probably going to be expedited now."
The 700 block of Ocean Avenue and portions of Eighth Street will remain closed indefinitely during the continuing operations at the scene.
Mayor Jay Gillian thanked the Ocean City Fire Department, all other public safety employees in Ocean City, the Public Works Department, departments from neighboring communities, the Cape May County Emergency Management team, county prosecutor, New Jersey American Water Company, South Jersey Gas and Verizon.
"This was a total team effort, and again, what you see behind us, they did an excellent job," Gillian said at the news conference adjacent to the fire site.