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I thought it was the last moment: Temple survivor

The fire that decimated the Sikh Cultural Society and critically injured a 37-year-old visitor from India could have been far more devastating were it not for the quick action of a 60-year-old man who was awakened by the sound of a smoke alarm, survivors of the blaze said.

Those who were inside the building credited Munsha Singh’s cries of “Aag Lag Gaie,” Punjabi for “there is a fire,” with rousting them from sleep and saving their lives.

With their eyes burning, noses running and throats itching from heavy smoke, 26 people escaped from the burning building by various routes because of Munsha Singh’s quick reaction, the survivors said. Four men managed to flee by knocking down a locked back door and many others, given no choice because of heavy smoke that filled a dark second floor corridor, broke windows, pushed air conditioners to the ground and jumped to safety.

Munsha Singh, who had been living in the temple since he was laid off from his job as a dishwasher in a restaurant last month, was sleeping on the floor in a ground level hallway when he was awakened by what he described as a “whistling” sound coming from a smoke detector. He got up to investigate the noise and saw smoke pouring from the staircase leading to a second floor library. All the lights then went out, he said.

“Then I started screaming really loud,” he said late Friday night through a translator in a gruff voice still hampered from the effects of the smoke. “Get up! Get up. There’s a fire. You could die!”

Those who heard Munsha Singh’s cries were sleeping at the Sikh Cultural Society for various reasons. At least 12 of the 26 boarders were visiting from India, including priests and ragies, or musicians, who had come to sing hymns. The temple’s permanent head priest, Giani Hardev Singh, lived in the building with his wife, two daughters and son.

Harvinder Singh Rattan, 37, who remained on life support Tuesday evening, had arrived just three weeks ago from New Delhi and was planning to tour the United States and Canada.

Mulayan Singh, 35, a visiting priest, was staying in a second-floor room next to the library with two others who were part of his kirtan jatha, or prayer group. The three were awakened by Munsha Singh’s cries.

“We heard him from downstairs,” he said through a translator. “When I opened the door, all of a sudden the smoke came in. Then I closed the door right away. We were having problems breathing, so we threw out the air conditioner and jumped out of the window — all three of us.”

Clad in sleeveless T-shirts and underwear, Mulayan Singh and his co-priests dropped about 15 feet and landed on an awning before making their way to the ground. “We hung down to come to the ground,” he said.

Seva Singh, who ran the temple’s community kitchen for the last six years, said the smoke was so thick when he opened his bedroom door he was forced to retreat and punch out a window with his bare right hand. His hand bloodied, he jumped to safety and was taken to Jamaica Hospital, where he was given seven stitches, he said.

But Seva Singh’s injuries were minor compared to those of Guldeep Singh, a visiting ragi who crashed through an overhang when he jumped out of a second-floor window.

Guldeep Singh, 31, was visiting with his brother and father as part of the Gurbax Singh Shant, a well-known trio of hymn singers. He played an accordion-like instrument known as a harmonium.

“I felt suffocated,” he said through a translator. “I didn’t even think what was there below me because the smoke was so strong. I just jumped.”

But unlike many of the jumpers who landed on an awning structure, Guldeep Singh crashed through the overhang and lay on the ground unconscious for 15 to 20 minutes. Nobody knew where he was until he regained his senses and walked, barefooted and unaided, out of the rubble. He was taken to Jamaica Hospital for treatment of a chest contusion and fractured left hand, which he said would prevent him from performing his duties as a ragi for some time.

Gajjan Singh, 38, who had arrived from India a few days earlier, said he was the last person to escape from the building. He was taken to Jamaica Hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation.

“Nothing was visible,” he said. We were moving up and down the hallway and I thought it was the last moment. Let us pray to God.”

By Friday night, nearly 24 hours after the fire had started, many of the survivors turned their attention from recounting tales of escape to worrying about how they were going to move forward with all their belongings burned in the fire. Wearing borrowed clothing many survivors said they had lost passports and money and were worried about how they would return to India.

Shelter was the least concern as some survivors were welcomed into the neighborhood homes of temple-goers and others found refuge four blocks away at the Gurdwara Baba Makhan Shah Lobana.

The Red Cross, which did not initially respond to the scene, was scheduled to meet with some of the victims Tuesday night, said Aman Singh, a community leader.

On Sunday Munsha Singh handed out a traditional offering called tarsad to those who attended a Sikh prayer service at the St. Benedict Joseph Labre Parish school gymnasium.

“I lost my clothes, money, my whole life,” he said. “But if they’re going to rebuild it, I want to be here.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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