Seaside Heights roller coaster, an iconic Sandy image, is torn down

Holly Bailey
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SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J.—They lined up by the dozens on Tuesday, cameras and iPhones in tow, taking their place along the balcony of a pizzeria recently reopened just off the beach. Nearby, construction workers hammered lumber into place to rebuild the boardwalk destroyed in October by Superstorm Sandy.

But just after noon, all work stopped and silence fell. A giant crane then tore into what has been the star attraction of this Jersey shore community in the six months since it was nearly destroyed by Sandy.

The Jet Star—the roller coaster submerged in the Atlantic Ocean since Oct. 29, when the massive storm surge sucked much of the pier and boardwalk here into the sea—was finally coming down. For many, it has been an icon of the devastation left in Sandy’s wake, a hauntingly beautiful reminder of everything the storm took from this working-class oceanfront community.

As a crane with a giant steel scoop struggled to rip apart the roller coaster's steel frame and tracks, the crowd took pictures.

“Here it goes,” one man said as the crane tore into the upper part of the coaster. “Mark this time: 12:12 p.m. That’s when it was over.”

Some in the crowd talked about where they were when Sandy struck, and how some got off easy while others lost everything. Some merely offered color commentary, as if they had to verbalize the scene to make it true. “It’s like dipping a fork into spaghetti,” one man said as the crane struggled to free a jagged piece of steel from the lower section of the coaster.

Camera crews, who had been told work would begin later in the afternoon, rushed to get the shot as, above them, a handful of news helicopters suddenly swooped in. A spokeswoman for Casino Pier, the coaster’s owner, later apologized for the early start, blaming an “overzealous” crew that wanted to get to work as soon as possible.

“It’s an emotional moment,” Bill Akers, the mayor of Seaside Heights, told Yahoo News, as he stood on a newly built section of the boardwalk just a few yards down the beach. The boards we were standing on, Akers said, hadn’t been there the day before—a sign of how furiously the town is working to get its amusement area reopened before Memorial Day weekend, the official launch of the summer tourist season that is crucial to the city’s economy.

“It took us a little longer than we would have liked … but we are very grateful to be at this point. Very very happy,” Akers said. “We always believed it could happen. But a lot of things had to go well for us, including Mother Nature had to give us the opportunity to get to this point. ... I’m glad we are where we are.”

There are still many unknowns, however, about what Seaside Heights will look like in two weeks—and whether tourists will truly come back in the volume this city needs to survive.

On Tuesday, Casino Pier said it hopes to open 18 rides this summer—about half as normal. The park is hoping that most of them will be open by Memorial Day—but the lower part of the pier, still under construction, needs to be rewired with electricity.

By July 4, the park hopes to open what will be the temporary replacement for the Jet Star—a new thrill ride the park is calling “The Superstorm,” which will swing occupants on a giant pendulum. The ride, officials said, was named in honor of Sandy as a sign of the resilience of Seaside Heights. They rejected the idea that it might be considered in poor taste given how many people in the region were negatively affected by Sandy.

“This is a memorial to the strength and resiliency of this city,” Toby Wolf, a spokeswoman for Casino Pier, said.

But that won’t be the only memorial. Next summer, Casino Pier plans to install a piece of the Jet Star on what it says will be a pier fully rebuilt and back to normal by 2014.

It’s unclear where the rest of the coaster will go. Many who congregated here to see it come down suggested they wouldn’t mind owning a piece—but Casino Pier officials said it would not put any part of the ride up for sale.

The Jet Star dismantling—a process expected to take fewer than 48 hours—continued on into the afternoon. Officials said the crews planned to work at all hours until the job was finished.

Carmen Holster, who had driven from his home in Pompton Plains, in north New Jersey, to see the coaster demolished, said it was a trip he'd made every other week over the past six months. He visited, he said, to see the ride and to mark the progress of Seaside Heights, where he spends part of the summer every year.

He was sad to see the coaster being demolished. “I’ve been on it. All my kids have been on it. We were hoping the grandkids would get to go on it, but they won’t,” Holster said with a shrug of his shoulders.

He said he wasn’t among those who had hoped the Jet Star would stay in the water longer as a reminder of Sandy’s wrath—suggesting it would have been hazardous. But he marveled at how long the coaster survived submerged in the sea.

“It’s amazing how it stayed together,” Holster said. “Whoever did the construction job of bolting it did one heck of a job.”

As he spoke, the crane emitted puffs of black smoke as it tried to dismember another part of the Jet Star, which stubbornly refused to break.