Fire ripped through a well-known nightspot on the Black Horse Pike yesterday, destroying the Coral Reef Restaurant & Lounge and narrowly missing two motels.
Crews received the first call shortly after 3 a.m. while about 75 patrons and employees were inside the Coral Reef, Bellmawr Fire Chief Jim Burleigh said.
No one was seriously injured, although some of the more than 150 firefighters who had responded from dozens of municipalities became ill from the four-alarm blaze's intense heat.
Burleigh said things could have turned out very differently.
On July 1, Bellmawr and surrounding companies began using a fire-scene procedure called an "incident management support team." It calls for fire chiefs from surrounding towns to perform key command roles.
The method was implemented as a result of the Gloucester City fire that killed three girls and three firefighters trying to save them on July 4, 2002. Several reports on that blaze stated that key safety positions had not been designated.
As demolition crews picked through smoking wreckage and firefighters milled around, sipping coffee and sodas at midmorning, Burleigh said the new procedure had worked.
"I had a lot of help, early on," he said. "When we showed up, it was very haphazard, but this brought more organization to the overall picture."
The Coral Reef patrons were quickly evacuated, but firefighters worried about a full EconoLodge just a few hundred yards away.
"I thought we were going to lose that, too," Burleigh said, motioning to the smoke-damaged hotel, "but the guys did an outstanding job."
Emergency workers evacuated and saved the EconoLodge and a Super 8 Motel, behind the Coral Reef, that had about 15 rooms occupied. The fire forced the shutdown of one entrance to a nearby industrial park, but three others remained open.
A stretch of the Black Horse Pike was closed because of the fire, but flooding from heavy overnight rain probably would have blocked the road anyway, Burleigh said.
Firefighters remained at the site through the afternoon, extinguishing hot spots.
The cause of the blaze was under investigation, but Burleigh said it did not appear to be suspicious.
Like Burleigh, Westville Fire Chief Chuck Murtaugh, who helped battle the blaze, praised the incident management support team, which his company began using this year.
"The comfort level of running the calls is so much better," Murtaugh said. "This is about 50 years too late."
Chiefs crossing county lines is a big deal, Murtaugh said.
"It's the fire service swallowing their pride, I guess. Can't do everything yourselves," he said.
Still, that gave little comfort to the residents and former patrons who gathered behind yellow fire-scene tape outside a Wendy's and the Bellmawr Motor Inn, looking dazedly at the sooty signs just beyond the heavy equipment and ladder trucks: "Karaoke on the Deck! Fridays with Billy K! $3.95 lunch specials!"
A woman walked up holding her daughter's hand and clutching an umbrella in the rain.
"That was my favorite nightclub!" she wailed.
Steve Ranieri nodded.
"It's a place to give directions from," said Ranieri, who has lived in Bellmawr for 34 years. "It's such a big part of little Bellmawr. My father's been coming here forever. I've been coming here forever."
Judy Mattucci lives two blocks away from the nightclub off the New Jersey Turnpike, and she had awakened to a long wail of sirens and a wall of smoke.
She and her family walked to the Black Horse Pike and watched the Coral Reef burn. Her husband took pictures.
"Flames were shooting out. It was fully engulfed. We just sat here from 3:30 to 7:30 and watched," Mattucci said.
Billy Dee walked up, somber and squinting.
"I worked here 13 years," he said to no one in particular. "I was the DJ."
He touched the yellow tape. He works at a club in Pennsylvania and had planned to stop by to see his friends at the Coral Reef the previous night but was tired and went home to Blackwood instead.