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'Suspicious' Footage Shows 3 Fleeing Area Near Synagogue That Burned: NYPD

By Allegra Hobbs | May 15, 2017 1:12pm | Updated on May 15, 2017 1:59pm
 The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue was largely destroyed in a massive fire Sunday night.
The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue was largely destroyed in a massive fire Sunday night.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — Authorities are reviewing footage that shows three young people running from the area around the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue near the time a fire broke out Sunday night that largely destroyed the historic structure, police said.

Surveillance footage shows three “kids” running from the area, the Deputy Inspector of the 7th Precinct Steve Hellman said, although it is still unknown whether they were fleeing the historic synagogue and it is too early to say whether criminality was involved in the massive blaze.

“We see kids running from the area — we don’t know if they were inside, we don’t know if they were responsible for the fire,” said Hellman.

“It is still under investigation, but it does seem suspicious due to the fact we saw individuals in the proximity possibly [around] the time of the fire,” he added.

The FDNY will ultimately determine the cause of the fire, he added.

Meanwhile, firefighters plan to search for victims in the derelict synagogue, according to FDNY Assistant Chief Roger Sakowich.

The landmarked building has been vacant for roughly a decade, said Sakowich Monday morning at the scene of the collapsed synagogue at 62 Norfolk St., and no missing persons had been reported.

However, it is known that people had been coming and going from the building and firefighters will still search the rubble for victims, Sakowich, of Manhattan Borough Command, said. Only the basement had been examined as of Monday morning due to the extensive damage to the upper level.

"There's no way we can search that first floor with what is collapsed on top of it," the chief said.

"You got about a 15-foot pile inside the main part of the synagogue that will have to be removed for us to search for any possible victims."

The building had been marked as vacant before the fire to indicate to arriving firefighters in a prospective emergency that it should be an "exterior operation," said Sakowich, meaning firefighters would not run into the blaze since there were likely no victims inside.

"This fire was quite large on arrival, the building was known to be vacant for 10 years — there was no reason for us to risk peoples' lives to go in there and that marking indicates that," said Sakowich.

The ceiling and walls of the synagogue came crashing down onto the first floor of the building, burying it under 15 feet of rubble, according to Sakowich, though the basement was largely preserved.

"The basement is in pretty good order — there's actually a library down there," said

"The main floor is pretty destroyed and covered with debris from the roof and the walls have collapsed."

The enormous blaze broke out shortly before 7 p.m. Sunday evening and was brought under control around midnight by more than 100 firefighters, according to an FDNY spokesman. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, said the spokesman.

Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum had told The Lo-Down young people had been coming and going from the building in recent weeks, and that authorities were reviewing surveillance footage to see if the same kids may have been on the property last night. 

Sakowich said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, but confirmed that information the department has gathered so far indicates the fire was sparked inside the building. 

The fire department will remain at the scene until at least 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, he said.

The Department of Buildings will carry out its own investigation to determine if any of the structure is salvageable, said Sakowich. A DOB spokesman would only say that an investigation was ongoing. The Landmarks Preservation Commission did not immediately return a request for comment.

Councilwoman Margaret Chin said she hopes the historic structure can be salvaged and preserved.

“Though there are still many unanswered questions regarding this fire, it’s clear that a vital part of the Lower East Side’s history suffered a devastating blow due to yesterday’s devastating fire," said Chin in a statement. "Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was the first synagogue serving the Eastern European Jewish community in New York City, and it is my hope that it can still be preserved for future generations so that this important part of our neighborhood’s story can still be told.”