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Chief: Torahs rescued from Long Beach temple fire

Long Beach Fire Department Lt. Billy Wade, left,

Long Beach Fire Department Lt. Billy Wade, left, and Probationary Firefighter Josh Risken hold Torahs that were recovered after they responded to a fire at Temple Beth El, 570 W. Walnut St., on Feb. 26, 2014. Firefighters saved several of the temple's Torahs from fire damage. Credit: Jim Staubitser

A Long Beach synagogue's cherished Torah scrolls were saved from a fire thanks to fast-acting firefighters and a Rockaway citizens group.

Long Beach Fire Chief Antonio Cuevas said the third floor of Temple Beth El on West Walnut Street was riddled with flames and smoke when fire crews arrived at 5:14 p.m. Wednesday.

"We knew that this was a place of worship and that there were items inside that were important to our Jewish community," he said.

As his crews fought to get the blaze under control, standby firefighters from Point Lookout-Lido rushed in to safely remove the scrolls, Cuevas said.

Volunteers from the Rockaway Citizens Safety Patrol, meanwhile, responded to the scene after hearing about the fire.

After helping several Rockaway-area synagogues after superstorm Sandy, they knew that the scrolls and other sacred items had to be treated, covered and stored in a certain way.

Safety patrol member Jesse Vogel said the first police officer he asked about the Torahs turned out to be the one who had them in his truck. The officer was grateful for the help, because he didn't know what to do with the six scrolls.

Vogel said he was filled with joy when he saw them.

"It was a beautiful thing because I was expecting to see a singed Torah, water-damaged Torah, a burned Torah," he said. "They didn't even smell like smoke. It was like winning the lottery."

Temple Beth El's sacred items will be secured at the nonprofit's headquarters until the congregation is ready to receive them again, coordinators said.

No one was injured in the fire, the chief said.

The third floor was badly damaged by fire and smoke, and the first and second floors sustained smoke and water damage, Cuevas said. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Scott Feigeles, 58, the temple's president, said he's grateful the nonprofit stepped forward to serve as Torah "caretakers" as he focuses on needed repairs.

About 20 people attend services in the winter, and it may take several weeks for services to resume, he said.

The temple caretaker and his family, who live in a third-floor apartment, were in the worship area when the fire started, Feigeles said.

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