Four dead and three critically injured as fire tears through New Jersey hotel

By Dave Warner

POINT PLEASANT BEACH, New Jersey (Reuters) - An early morning fire tore through a Jersey Shore motel popular with fishermen on Friday, killing four people and critically injuring three others, law enforcement officials said.

Beach breezes whipped up the flames that engulfed the two-story Mariner's Cove Motor Inn in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, fire and law enforcement officials told a news conference.

Seven people were injured, three of them critically, and four bodies were found in the scorched ruins of the motel, said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato.

All other guests and residents initially reported missing were later accounted for, the prosecutor's spokesman said.

About half of the motel's 40 occupants were using it as temporary housing after being displaced from their homes by Hurricane Sandy, said James Giannuzzi, whose beachfront condominium was badly flooded during that storm and had been living on the motel's first floor for about six weeks.

Hurricane Sandy ravaged the U.S. eastern seaboard in October 2012, killing 286 people in a total of seven countries hit by the cyclone and causing an estimated $68 billion in damage, according to the National Weather Service.

The area around the motel was badly flooded during Sandy, said local resident Cynthia Clausen.

Giannuzzi, 52, said he awoke early on Friday to the sound of "some hero knocking on all the doors." He said he grabbed his jeans, boots and coats and threw open his motel room door.

"It was a raging fire," said Giannuzzi, who was treated at a nearby hospital for smoke inhalation and released. He said the Red Cross was sheltering displaced motel residents at a nearby location.

The four people who died in the fire were all men staying in adjacent rooms on the second floor, according to Ocean County Assistant Fire Marshal Edward Hazelton.

The fire was reported shortly after 5:30 a.m. (0930 GMT) and extinguished within a few hours, said Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. The cause was unknown and under investigation.

Mariner's Cove Motor Inn, which has a large swimming pool, is located near Cooks Creek, a narrow waterway that connects the Manasquan River to Lake Louise. The seaside town of Point Pleasant Beach is a popular destination for millions of sun-worshippers who flock to the Jersey Shore every summer.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Chris Francescani; Editing by Jonathan Allen, Stephen Powell, Gunna Dickson, Tom Brown and Sharon Bernstein)

[Image: A firefighter climbs a staircase to the second floor of the charred remains of the Mariner's Cove Inn in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, March 21, 2014. By Charles Mostoller for Reuters.]