A fire that heavily damaged the second floor ballroom of Temple Israel in Great Neck early Tuesday was sparked by sawdust that spontaneously ignited, according to fire officials.
“Last night they were sanding the floor and the contractor put sawdust in a closed container in a corner of the room,” explained Victor Fuentes, chief of the Great Neck Alert Fire Department. “There was a spontaneous combustion from the sawdust and the chemicals [from the floor].”
The fire quickly engulfed the ballroom and triggered an automatic fire alarm at 5:35 a.m., Fuentes said.
He said that about 200 fire fighters from all four Great Neck departments, as well as ambulances from the Port Washington and East Williston Fire Departments, responded to the blaze. It was declared under control at 8:12 a.m.
There was no sprinkler system in the ballroom, which sustained heavy damage. The synagogue’s religious school classrooms directly below the ballroom sustained water and smoke damage, and Fuentes said the heating system carried smoke throughout the rest of the building.
But Rabbi Howard Stecker, spiritual leader of the 1,100-family Conservative congregation, said that by the afternoon the smoke had largely dissipated in the sanctuary, which is in the original section of the building.
Richard Kestenbaum, the congregation’s president, said there was no fire or water damage to the rest of the building.
“Thank God nobody got hurt,” he said.
Kestenbaum noted that he raced to the synagogue shortly after the alarm was sounded and, as smoked billowed from the ballroom, he and several firefighters and police officers removed all of the Torahs from the sanctuary and chapel.
Later, Rabbi Stecker said he conducted an abbreviated Shachrit or morning prayer service with about a dozen congregants while they stood in frigid temperatures on Old Mill Road, the street in front of the synagogue.
The rabbi said the evening prayer service, combined with special prayers of thanksgiving for the work of the firefighters and police, was held that evening in the Waxman Youth House, a separate building on the synagogue grounds.
“It [was] an opportunity for people to come together,” he said.
Rabbi Stecker noted that shortly after the fire was extinguished, he received calls from his colleagues at neighboring Conservative, Reform and Orthodox congregations offering their support, as well as space for classes and services to be held.
“This is quite a nice testament to the kind of community we have,” he said. “It was really very touching.”
Kestenbaum said it would take time to “assess the situation and see how quickly we can get the school wing back.” He said he did not yet have a monetary figure on the damage.