POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. — Four motel residents were killed in an early Friday fire that destroyed the two-story building and left eight other people injured, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said.
Most of the injured people had burns and other injuries; the fourth body was found Friday afternoon. No identifications have been made and no next of kin have been notified.
Four of the injured were taken to Jersey Shore University University Medical Center in Neptune, where two were treated and released, one was admitted, and another transferred to the Burn Center at St. Barnabas in Livingston, Coronato said. Two were taken to Ocean Medical Center in Brick, and one was taken to Median Urgent Care Center in Neptune
One Ocean County Sheriff's officer responding to the scene suffered a broken ankle, he said.
Coronato said at least 40 people were believed to be at the motel at time of the fire, which was called in shortly after 4:30 a.m. Friday. All remaining people have been accounted for, officials said.
Point Pleasant Beach Fire Chief A.J. Fox described a dramatic rescue in which firefighters spotted one woman through the window of a second-floor room. She was standing in the shower stall with the water running. Firefighters put up a ladder to the window, broke the window, fought the flames above her head and firefighter Mike Ryan pulled the woman to safety through the window, handing her to fellow firefighter Justin Leach.
Surrounded by flames
Mark Lynch, 45, one of the motel residents, doesn't recall what woke him Friday morning — possibly a young guy yelling from across the pool.
But the stone mason, who was living on the second floor, said he could see the orange glow from through the door. He opened it briefly to see flames surrounding him, but, to his surprise, not in front of his motel door.
"The flames were hotter than I've ever felt," he said. "I didn't realize they got that hot."
Lynch immediately slammed the door and went to wake his roommate, Bobby, a block mason with whom he had been sharing the motel until the two could save up enough money to move into a more permanent home.
Lynch said he ripped Bobby, a heavy sleeper, out of bed to wake him. The two then tore open the window and considered jumping to the ground before deciding the distance from the second floor to the ground was too high.
That's when they returned once again to the door, except this time they saw a wall of flames. Staying put was no longer an option because "the flames jumped into the room. They were licking the ceiling," he said.
"I just realized we'd have to haul ass through these flames. So that's what we did."
Lynch isn't sure why, but he grabbed a backpack he had packed a few nights earlier in an attempt to keep his stuff neat. That's why he had a change of clothes from the sweatpants he was sleeping in.
But that was all he was able to salvage from the space. He assumes he lost everything else in the fire.
Between him and his roommate, Lynch estimates the two men lost about $1,000 in cash, their wallets, their car keys, cell phones and any identification.
"We were just making progress," he said. "This destroyed us."
Lynch said he didn't hear fire alarms and saw no sprinklers in the building.
"That thing went up quicker than I've ever seen," he said.
'Ashes and embers raining down'
Frank Smith said a strong west wind whipped the flames across the motel's roof, causing the building to burn quickly.
A "tremendous" commotion from the second floor woke Smith up, but he first thought it was a fight. But then the 72-year-old retiree who rented Room 111 weekly heard someone yell, "Fire."
"I saw ashes and embers raining down and I thought, 'Christ, I better get out out,' " he said. "I was so scared I didn't think to grab my stuff."
"The embers were pouring out when I opened the door," said Smith, who suffered first-degree burns on his shoulders.
A woman from a neighboring motel gave Smith, who had been sleeping in his underwear, pajama pants and top to wear while he stood on the sidewalk, watching the fire with a crowd he estimated at 15 to 20 people.
Smith said he knew one of the men killed in the fire on a first-name basis.
Smith and Lynch both said they were glad to be alive.
Pete Kuch, 45, who was staying on the second floor, leaped to safety from the second-story balcony.
"I had no choice," he said.
Firefighters from Point Pleasant, Point Pleasant Beach and South Wall were called to battle the blaze.
Shawn Wardel, who was staying on the first floor of the motel with his family, said his grandmother woke up other family members to warn them of the fire, and the family and police had to get his disabled grandfather out of the building.
He said the fire started on the other side of the building, and wind appeared to blow the fire to the side they were on. When he walked out of his room, he saw only flames, he said.
Point Pleasant Beach resident Tom Vogel said the motel, which had no concrete walls, went up "very, very fast."
"It went up like a Christmas tree," he said.
A woman, who declined to give her name, said she was there hoping for news about her friend who lived in the motel.
"I'm just worried about my friend," she said.
Vincent Frulio, an arson investigator with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, said the manager's office was destroyed, so authorities have not been able to gather any records on residents at the motel.
Dogs that can detect cadavers and accelerants have been brought to the scene, he said.
Michael Laughran, 60, a longtime borough resident and former councilman, said the first floor of the motel was flooded during superstorm Sandy in 2011 and likely had finished being refurbished recently.
Adjacent properties were also damaged.
"When you see something like this, it's devastating. And to hear ... lives were lost, so sad," said June Formato, who works at the nearby Surfside Motel.
The motel's website says it is open year-round and opened in 1985. The L-shaped motel is within a few blocks of the borough's popular beach and boardwalk and the Manasquan Inlet.