By DON STINE
Both county and federal officials have recently confirmed that a massive fire in Ocean Grove on March 3 last year, that destroyed or damaged seven buildings, appears to be arson and that the investigation into the fire is being reopened.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have reopened their investigation after the two agencies realized there had been a communications failure in the investigation.
“The case is reopened and we are working in conjunction with the ATF. The findings of the ATF report state that it was an intentional fire,” Christopher Swendeman, a spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office, said.
The ATF report did not identify a specific suspect, but it stated that it is probable that either an arsonist or vagrant deliberately set fire to the structure in a location where fire should not otherwise be present. The fire started in the early-morning hours in the vacant Warrington Hotel and caused $10 million worth of damage and displaced 98 residents.
The ATF ended their investigation on Oct. 13 last year and the Prosecutor’s Office ended its inquiry at the end of November. The ATF had identified several persons of interest regarding the possible arson but the agency’s counterpart at the Prosecutor’s Office never answered or returned phone calls or emails.
Officials at both agencies acknowledge fault and said they will reopen the investigation. Prosecutors said they believed the ATF was running the investigation and didn’t realize that the agency was seeking its help.
On March 23 last year, The Coaster ran an article raising the possibility that several Ocean Grove fires could have been the result of a serial arsonist.
In March, 2011 a four-alarm fire destroyed the former Surf Hotel and at least eight other buildings near Surf and Atlantic Avenues. The Surf Hotel was vacant and being refurbished into a 19-unit condominium at the time. The fire call came in at 5:11 a.m.
On March 13, 2010 a fire destroyed the historic Manchester Inn, which was more than 100 years old, and six homes on Ocean Pathway and Bath Avenue. The Manchester Inn was vacant at the time and the emergency call came in at 5:05 a.m.
The article said that all of the fires began in vacant buildings, all were in March, all were on windy days and all began in the early morning hours under mysterious circumstances.
Ocean Grove fire official Ron Cole said the he is glad that the fire is being investigated again.
“It gives some peace of mind that it is being looked into again and, hopefully, they will get to the bottom of this. I hope there is an outcome to this and I hope the arsonist is eventually found. We can’t keep having this happen in Ocean Grove,” he said.