The Herald Bulletin

Midday Update

Breaking News

March 22, 2014

Cause sought of New Jersey shore motel fire that killed four

POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. — An early-morning trip to the bathroom saved Joe Frystock's life.

The New Jersey man lost his home in Superstorm Sandy and had been staying in temporary accommodations since then. Early Friday morning, he was among 40 people staying at a Point Pleasant Beach motel when a raging fire broke out, killing four people and injuring eight.

Investigators will ramp up their probe into the cause of the fire on Saturday, but a determination is not expected for several days.

Frystock, who has diabetes and frequently has to use the bathroom, said he woke up early Friday to find the motel ablaze. As he fled to safety, he pounded on doors and windows, warning fellow motel residents to get out.

He left with the clothes on his back, his insulin kit and nothing more.

"I lost everything — again — but I'm alive," he said.

He said his home in nearby Brick, N.J., was flooded with 6 feet of water during Superstorm Sandy that tore through his deck "like it was tissue paper." He has lived in rental properties since the storm.

"It's been an Odyssey ever since Oct. 29, 2012," he said, referring to the date of the destructive storm. "We secured other housing but that fell through" because of the possible threat of additional flooding in the future.

"Now everything is gone for a second time," he said.

Frystock and the other occupants of the Mariner's Cove Motor Inn were given temporary shelter in other motels in Point Pleasant Beach on Friday. The town is a popular Jersey shore summer resort where the dozen or so hotels and motels rely on people seeking cheap rentals to get them through the slow winter season.

An intense investigation into the cause of the early morning blaze began Friday afternoon after the last of the four bodies was removed and taken away for an autopsy. The victims had not been positively identified Friday.

Investigators used dogs specially trained to react to the presence of gasoline or other petroleum products that might have been used to start or accelerate a fire. The dogs sniffed at charred items and building debris at the curb and alongside the motel's outdoor swimming pool but showed no obvious reaction to anything.

Task Force One, New Jersey's elite urban search and rescue team that has responded to disaster scenes around the world, also joined the investigation.

The blaze was the second major fire at the Jersey shore in seven months, following a September blaze that destroyed about a third of the boardwalk in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park. The boardwalk had just been rebuilt after Sandy. It is now being rebuilt — again — and many of the same arson investigators who probed the boardwalk fire are investigating the motel blaze as well.

Many of those injured in the Friday motel fire had burns and broken bones. Survivors described a chaotic scene of flames, smoke and screaming.

Peter Kuch said he smelled smoke and opened his door to find a lounge area engulfed in flames. He dialed 911, 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 sprained an ankle but said he otherwise was all right.

A woman who had sought refuge in a shower and kept the water running on her while waiting to be rescued was pulled from the bathroom by one firefighter, who handed her out a window to another firefighter, who carried her down a ladder to safety. The woman was taken to St. Barnabas Medical Center, which specializes in treating severe burns.

Lloyd Barker, another motel resident who safely escaped the fire, watched as firefighters rescued the woman.

"She was screaming, there was fire over her head," he said. "She was all black, from head to toe. It was chaos."

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."

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