Don Buhler and his wife were on a bus in Prague on Saturday, part of a sightseeing vacation that would take them down the Danube River, when he got the call from his son, Darren Buhler, in Hazlet.
"Pop, we got a problem," he recalls Darren saying. "It looks like the dealership is gone to the ground. It's on fire."
Don Buhler listened, stunned, as his son described the catastrophic fire in progress that engulfed the service area, and that would eventually require the demolition of the office, parts department and showroom by the day's end.
Don Buhler knew the building well -- he was there the day it opened in 1968. A photograph hung in the showroom of his 24-year-old self, his father Robert "Bob" Buhler, and his uncle Clyde Essinson in suits and ties. They had inherited the business from George Buhler and Carl Bitter who started out in Keyport back in 1925 selling Hudson Hornets and DeSotos.
Today the dealership has passed from Don Buhler to partners and brothers-in-law Darren Buhler and Garry Foltz.
Don Buhler found his way home quickly. In the scorching late afternoon heat on Memorial Day, he approached the landmark dealership on foot, and saw the pile. "It's an emotionally draining experience for me," he said. "It overwhelms you. I walked up the back street here. All I could see was trees."
The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office has not released an official cause for the May 26 fire, which many believe started in the service area of the building on Route 35, which sits near the intersection with Holmdel Road. The fire will long be remembered in the Bayshore for the heat, the tall, stubborn flames and the huge response from volunteer fire companies and first responders that came, sirens blaring, all the way from Aberdeen to Atlantic Highlands in the first morning light of a holiday weekend.
The day after the blaze, people started showing up at the lot, asking what they could do to help. The owners of the Buhler Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership, one of the biggest in the New York dealership zone, had quickly struck a deal with Remson Dodge to rent their vacant property 500 feet away on 3282 Route 35 South for sales and service.
Dozens of former customers and members of the local Jeep and 4 x 4 clubs helped match keys to vehicles. They drove sooty but otherwise unscathed vehicles to the across the highway, and back into the selling lots. Township officials stopped by repeatedly, offering assistance, and an electrician worked long hours to restore service. Remson did everything they could to help, he said.
"We knew we had a lot of customers," said Garry Foltz on Tuesday. "We had no idea we had so many friends." The firm had its work cut out for them in coming weeks and months -- among the top priorities are the retrieval of company records, filling out the insurance documents and getting employees back to work. But so are thank you letters. "We want to thank the fire departments, the police, the zoning office -- so many people," said Foltz.
Foltz was also out of town when the catastrophe hit. A dealership manager roused him out of sleep at 5:30 a.m. in a hotel in Rehobeth, Maryland where his son's team, the Colts Neck Cougars, were playing in a Little League tournament. He left his son with the team coach and his wife drove him back to Hazlet in a hurry, "I had my iPad on my lap and two phones in my ears the whole way back," he said.
He said the dealership had no plans to lay off its 40 employees, and that they would reopen at the nearby location with desks and offices on Wednesday.
In fact, they had never officially closed. On Memorial Day, the Buhler car dealership sold seven cars -- a new Jeep Wrangler and two pre-owned vehicles to the same family. "These were people who had been waiting," said Foltz. Closing the sales were a big morale boost to the employees.
"We want people to know we are open for business," said Foltz, "and we are going to be very ready, very soon, to return all the favors with great customer service."