Ozone Park fire destroys Sikh holy books

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Fire tore through the second floor of a two-family home on 103rd Street near Liberty Avenue last Thursday afternoon, destroying the holy books of a distraught Sikh family and injuring five firefighters.

The firefighters were taken to Jamaica Hospital with minor injuries that consisted mostly of strains, slight burns and heat exhaustion, said Deputy Chief Paul Ferraro of Division 13.

The Sikh family, who was not home when the fire started, quickly arrived at the scene to find that their holy books, known as Guru Granth Sahibs, had not survived the blaze.

“I could have lost everything but not the holy books,” said Karnail Singh, who had lived on the second floor of the 103-71 103rd St. house with his brother, uncle and two cousins for three years. “If I was here when the house was on fire, I would have run in and saved them. I’d rather die than lose them.”

The fire, which started shortly before 3 p.m., appeared to have originated toward the front of the second floor. Power lines were charred and the entire front section of the top floor was burned. The fire did not reach the back of the second story, and the first floor and basement were not damaged by the flames.

Mashwari Etwarrou was home on the first floor with her husband, who owns the building, and two other family members when the fire broke out.

“I saw smoke and said ‘the house is one fire. Get outside,’ ” she said. “We just left everything and got out. The flames were coming so much and glass started to break.”

The occupant of a basement apartment was not at home when the fire began, but arrived shortly after firefighters had extinguished the blaze.

Battalion 51 Chief Ken Grabowski said there was a lot of fire upon arrival and that fire marshals had been called in to investigate the cause. Con Edison was expected to repair the power lines, he said.

As firefighters exhausted from the heat reeled in their hoses, a group of Sikhs anxiously waited for the go-ahead from fire officials to begin their search for the holy books. Karnail Singh’s brother, Lakhwinder Singh, arrived at his ruined house and stared in disbelief, tears streaming down his face.

A group of Sikh onlookers recalled that Guru Granth Sahibs were rescued from the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill when the temple burned in March and hoped for the same result.

Men desperately picked through rubble that had fallen into a small yard in front of the house in a fruitless search for their beloved holy books. Fire officials then escorted the Singh brothers to the burnt second floor.

After a few minutes, Lakhwinder Singh emerged from the house with the ruined books wrapped in a white sheet held above his head.

“We were not able to save them,” said Karnail Singh. “They were charred. There were maybe a few pages left.”

The brothers and other family members loaded the sheet into a van and drove to the Gurdwara Baba Makhan Shah Lobana, a Sikh temple on 101st Avenue and 114th Street, where they left the remains of the Guru Granth Sahibs with a priest.

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

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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