Bir survives suspicious fire at Khalsa school

"He does his miracles. That's the Guru's power. It's totally hard to believe the Bir survived....

VANCOUVER — Rina Kaur Chawla wept with relief Thursday and declared it a miracle when a fireman carried out the Guru Granth Sahib, unscathed from the ashes of a fire that destroyed Vancouver's Khalsa School and the small temple in which the Bir was lodged.

"It's totally intact. It's a miracle nothing happened to it. It's amazing it was saved," said Chawla.

The temple was located in a converted portable classroom, one of the six portables levelled by the fire, which police suspect was deliberately set at about 7 a.m.

Chawla is a former principal of the elementary school, which is located at 43rd Avenue and Prince Albert Street and has 155 students.

She had gathered with a group of devout Sikhs who had been fretting about the fate of the Bir.

They stood for hours across the street from the temple keeping watch as firefighters fought the blaze, afraid that the Bir had been consumed by the fire that had already destroyed the walls and roof of the temple, or by the high-pressure water being poured into it from an aerial ladder.

Deputy Fire Chief Tom McEwen said firefighters were made aware of the importance of the Bir to the Sikh community when they arrived on the scene.

Although the fire was still active and smoke and steam were rising in columns above the ruined school, a firefighter was sent into the destroyed temple and recovered the Bir just before 10:30 a.m.

He carried the Bir across the street and a Sikh priest dressed in white robes and a white turban spread a large white sheet on which which the Bir was placed.

The Bir was then wrapped in the sheet and the priest carried it on his head while the faithful followed behind, repeating prayers. He entered a car and was driven away with the Bir on his lap.

"He does his miracles," said Chawla. "That's the Guru's power. It's totally hard to believe it survived. That building was on fire; there were huge flames coming from it."

"We want to thank the firefighters, they've done an amazing job," she said.

As the Bir was being driven away, Vancouver police arson investigators and the fire department could be seen probing the edges of the ruined school, which was founded in 1986. It was the first Sikh religious school to be opened in B.C.

McEwen said arson was suspected because when firefighters arrived on the scene they saw the fire had spread throughout the portable classrooms.

(Sun photographer Ian Smith, who was on the scene shortly after the fire was reported, saw four distinct fires burning when he arrived.)

It was the second mysterious fire to occur in the school in recent times. In the summer of 2004, a fire damaged two portable classrooms.

Khalsa School principal Jasbir Bhatia arrived at the scene at about 8 a.m. to find his school engulfed in flames.

"Thanks be to God that no lives were lost," Bhatia said.

He said the fire looked suspicious.

"I'm shocked, but we have to leave it to the investigators to find out what happened. We will cooperate fully with the fire department and the police," Bhatia said.

He was at a loss to say what would happen to the 155 children enrolled for classes in September.

"Right now I'm emotionally disturbed by what's happened," he said, looking at the charred beams and collapsed roofs, all that was left of his school.

"We will sit down and plan some line of action, but right now I can't comment. It's too disturbing," he said.

The portables were leased to the school by the Vancouver school district. Firefighters managed to save one portable and kept the blaze from spreading to nearby South Hill School, which is separated from the Khalsa School by a six-metre lane.

Former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh — now MP for Vancouver South — came over from his constituency office a few blocks from the school.

"This is a huge setback for people who send their children to the school," Dosanjh said. "I understand arson is suspected and if that's the case, I hope the police catch the culprits."

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