Sikh temple burns, 8 hurt as leaders vow to rebuild

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A mysterious fire destroyed the 118th Street temple that served as the cultural and religious epicenter of the Richmond Hill Sikh community early Friday morning, leaving a 37-year old visitor from India in critical condition and injuring seven others.

The Sikh Cultural Society, the oldest and largest Sikh temple, or gurdwara, on the East Coast, erupted in flames around 12:15 a.m. while at least 26 people were sleeping inside, survivors said.

Smoke filled the hallways of the second-floor living quarters in a wood frame structure, forcing people to break windows with their hands and jump to safety, those who escaped said.

Alerted by a 911 call, firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after 12:30 a.m. They sounded a second alarm at 12:41 and a third alarm 20 minutes later, fire officials said.

It took 145 firefighters nearly four hours to bring the blaze under control and two firefighters from Engine Co. 303 were among the injured, said Assistant Chief Joseph Callan.

Harvinder Singh Rattan, 37, a tourist from India, was removed from the building by firefighters after severe smoke inhalation apparently exacerbated a pre-existing heart condition, Callan said. He was taken to Jamaica Hospital, where he remained on life support Tuesday evening.

The ruined building, a half-block complex at 95-30 118th St., housed the temple, bedrooms, a 15,000-book library, a computer lab and a large kitchen that served thousands of people each weekend.

“This is our heart,” said Avtar Singh Pannu, a Sikh Cultural Society trustee, as he watched firefighters spray water onto the temple, which was still smoldering late Friday morning. “Our heart is burning now.”

The cause of the blaze was under investigation. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Friday that although Sikhs have been the target of hate crimes since Sept. 11 and the temple has had internal squabbles over the years, it was too early to speculate as to whether the fire was suspicious.

Gian Singh, a temple guard who was sleeping in a covered area outside the building where worshipers left their shoes, said he heard nothing unusual before shouts of fire pierced the evening’s silence.

Investigators said Friday they believed the fire started in the building’s basement, which housed a large community kitchen, and were concentrating on the possibility of a gas leak.

Callan said neighbors had reported smelling gas Thursday. But survivors of the blaze said they smelled no gas-like odors and refuted official reports that the fire started in the basement kitchen.

Pritpal Singh, a community leader who had interviewed all of the survivors, said the fire most likely started in a first-floor coat room.

“There was no smoke in the basement,” said Surinder Singh, who woke up after hearing a man scream there was a fire. He said he went to the basement in search of an old woman who was not there and found it free of smoke and fire.

Seva Singh, who had run the kitchen for the last six years, said he followed his regular routine of checking the stoves Thursday night to make sure the gas was turned off. He said the Fire Department conducted a complete fire safety inspection of the temple some two weeks before the fire, installing 15 new fire extinguishers, but otherwise gave the building a clean bill of health.

Firefighters broke through a back window to rescue 15 Sikh holy books. While some of the books were taken to a Hillcrest temple for safe keeping, others were kept in Richmond Hill, where a house across the street from the smoking temple was transformed into a gurdwara and prayer services continued all weekend.

As smoke rose from the temple Friday, a steady stream of Sikhs gathered along the street beside the temple. Young girls wept as they stared at the burning temple. Trays of spicy food and cups of tea were handed out for the traditional meal known as langar despite the destruction of the temple.

“I still love this gurdwara because it was the first place I came when I came to America,” said Gurdipi Singh, who lives in Glen Cove, L.I. He traveled to the scene of the fire with his wife and daughter to pay tribute to the temple, known to Sikhs as the gateway to the United States.

The Sikh Cultural Society, founded in 1965, purchased a brick-faced 19th century Methodist Church in 1972 when there were only 150 to 200 Sikh families in the area. A wooden structure where investigators believe the fire started was then added on to the church building.

There are now eight gurdwaras serving more than 50,000 Sikhs in Queens, but the Sikh Cultural Society serving a neighborhood of about 25,000 Sikhs was the largest, temple leaders said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Borough President Helen Marshall and other political leaders arrived on the scene to offer their condolences and help.

“I’m here because a large segment of my borough has endured a tremendous pain,” said Marshall, who promised Sikh leaders she would help them rebuild their temple. “I’m very concerned that this largest place of worship has been so badly destroyed.”

Temple leaders sounded their own confident call to rebuild.

“It is not a question of if, it is a question of when,” said Harpreet Singh Toor, chairman of the society. “We will work to bring it back bigger and stronger than what it was.”

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

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