'It's going to need a lot of work': Accidental fire damages Houston synagogue

By Cory McCord - Digital News Editor, Cathy Hernandez - Reporter, Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli - Digital News Editor

HOUSTON - Members of a Houston synagogue are waking up to bittersweet emotions after part of their building was damaged in an accidental fire.

According to authorities, there were about 30 people inside for a service when the fire started around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday during a service at the Torah Vachesed in the 5900 block of South Braeswood.

One of the members saw the fire and alerted everyone.

"One of our congregants screamed out, "Get out. It's a fire!" Something to that extent. "Everyone get out,’ and we immediately evacuated,” said Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian with Congregation Torah Vachesed.

VIDEO: Aftermath of fire inside synagogue

They all escaped safely before firefighters got there.

Firefighters arrived to find flames on the outside of the building with smoke coming from the roof, authorities said.

The fire was put out within 15 minutes, which according to officers helped to save most of the building and several holy items, including all 11 Torah scrolls.

The Houston Fire Department later said the fire was accidental and there were about $60,000 in damages. About $240,000 worth of property was saved, HFD said.

Yaghobin said he was more than grateful for the firefighters and their sensitivity to the needs of the community.

“We tried to put out the fire ourselves, which is something you aren't supposed to do, but when you have a book of holy things you do something,” Yaghobin said. “We were willing to jump in there even if we were arrested or it did harm to our bodies to get the holy articles.”

VIDEO: People evacuate synagogue, work to save holy scrolls

Yaghobin said he and the rest of the congregation were relieved when firefighters brought the scrolls out of the building and saw they were safe.

“Firefighters brought out, with the police, they brought out our holy books and we got to see that they’re all OK,” Yaghobin said. “Again, I want to thank them again and again and again … thank God for the miracle that no one was hurt and no holy article was damaged.”

Another rabbi said the moment was very emotional for the members of the congregation.

"The joy and the exuberance, almost the emotion on everyone's face, many were brought to tears to just see these holy scrolls being saved from this fire, it was unbelievable,” said Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe with the TORCH Centre.

Hanukkah starts Sunday, Dec. 2, and the synagogue was planning celebrations that will have to be moved but Yaghobin is not disheartened.

"It’s going to be better, I'm assuming, in some way," Yaghobin said.

Leaders of the synagogue were assessing the damage to determine their next step. Services will be held at the nearby TORCH Centre in the meantime.

"The ceiling fan is down and it smells terrible. It's going to need a lot of work,” said Moshe Ben Bassat, a member of the congregation. "I think we're going to be OK. I'm optimistic."

Arson investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire.

If you would like to help, the congregation asks that you visit this website.

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