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Sikhs build new home as fire officials rule out foul play

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The March 8 fire that destroyed the Sikh Cultural Society temple in Richmond Hill did not involve foul play and was most likely ignited by a gas leak outside the building, a Fire Department battalion chief said Tuesday.

Even as investigators continued to look into the exact cause of the fire, Richmond Hill Sikhs completed the conversion of a house next door to the rubble into a temporary temple in time for Friday’s celebration of Hola Mahala, a holiday started by a 16th-century Sikh guru as an alternative to the traditional Hindu Phagwah festival.

More than 25 volunteers worked to transform the house at 95-26 118th St., and just three weeks after fire destroyed their temple, or gurdwara, 100 Sikhs attended a Friday morning service at the converted house of worship.

“Today’s the first day in our new home,” head priest Hardev Singh said in Punjabi to the worshipers who gathered for the grand opening. “God bless everybody and this new home.”

Battalion 51 Chief Ken Grabowski told a Community Board 9 district cabinet meeting late last month that the fire was not suspicious. In an interview with the TimesLedger Tuesday, he confirmed foul play was not involved.

“It was tentatively determined to be an accidental fire caused by a gas leak,” he said. “I’m sure it wasn’t an incendiary.”

Grabowski said investigators believe the gas leak came from outside the temple. Hours after the fire broke out, workers from KeySpan could be seen digging through the concrete in front of the building.

Ed Yutkowitz, a spokesman for KeySpan, said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

“We work with the Fire Department and independen­tly,” he said. “We have our own staff of investigators and they’re still working on it.”

Mike Driscoll, an investigator with Connecticut-based Crawford Investigations, which represents the temple’s insurance company and is conducting a separate investigation, said the inquiry was ongoing and he could not make a comment.

Meanwhile, Richmond Hill’s Sikhs were happy to move into their temporary home. Volunteers worked throughout the night, painting walls, laying carpet and hanging a chandelier to ensure the building would be ready for Friday services.

Nearly 1,000 worshipers attended the Hola Mahala services that stretched into the night Friday. Celebration of Hola Mahala started in 1701 when Guru Gobind Singh Ji organized a day of sports and war games because he thought the festival of Phagwah, where Hindus sprinkle colorful powder on each other, was not appropriate for the Sikhs, who were traditionally warriors.

On Saturday morning, temple leaders brought the Sikh holy books rescued from the fire back to Richmond Hill from the Hillcrest gurdwara where they had been stored for safekeeping.

“We’re glad to see our holy book back in its place,” said Jasminder Singh Jassi, a member of the society for 22 years. “God gave us the strength to build this building and we want God to give us the strength to build the next building where the whole community can come together.”

Harpreet Singh Toor, chairman of the society, said construction of a new temple would take about two years and would cost $10 million. Temple leaders are currently looking for an architect who can design a building that will blend both Sikh and American traditions.

“We are very glad to have this small building,” said Avtar Singh Pannu, a trustee of the society. “As soon as possible we will have a new permanent building.”

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

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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