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Fire Leaves Only Shell Of Historic Synagogue In New Brunswick, N.J.

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- An extra-alarm fire gutted a historic synagogue in New Brunswick, New Jersey Friday afternoon.

The fire broke out around 4:30 p.m. at Congregation Poile Zedek, an Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue at 145 Neilson St., near Bayard Street, in New Brunswick, officials told CBS2. The blaze was later raised to extra alarms, and surrounding buildings had to be evacuated, Joe Biermann reported from Chopper 2.

As CBS2's Jessica Schneider reported, blocks around the synagogue were still filled with fire trucks at 9 p.m. The fire was out by then, but the pain was just beginning for members of this synagogue -- who said all but one of their sacred Torah scrolls went up in flames along with the building itself.

It was the caretaker of the historic synagogue who sent out the call for help. He was the only one inside the Poile Zedek synagogue when he heard a banging, and then the building filled with smoke.

"We didn't see any fire until we ventilated second and third floor windows, and then we had heavy fire blowing out of the windows and through the roof," said New Brunswick Fire Department Director Robert Rawls.

Within minutes, the whole structure was devoured by flames. Eight departments responded just before the roof collapsed.

The intensity of the flames forced an exterior attack on the fire with tower ladders, in an effort to "surround and drown" the blaze, Biermann reported. Firefighters also shot hose streams through the charred front doors of the synagogue.

PHOTOS: Fire Guts Historic New Brunswick, N.J. Synagogue

By 6 p.m., the shell of the building was all that was left. Virtually nothing inside the synagogue was salvageable.

Poile Zedek was founded as a mutual aid society in 1901, with a congregation made up predominantly of Russian and Polish immigrants, according to the website of the synagogue. The congregation has about 100 members, and some students from nearby Rutgers University attend services there, CBS2 reported.

The congregation purchased the land on Neilson Street in 1905, and the current building was completed in 1924, the website said.

The building was placed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places in 1995, the site said.

Members of the synagogue were shocked by the horrific blaze.

"Some of the members of the synagogue coming by – of course, this is Friday evening; they're getting ready for Shabbos services – obviously, this looked shocked, and this is a big loss for their community," Patrick Murray of Monmouth University polling told WCBS 880. "It's also a big loss for the local community, as it's a historic building here, right in the heart of New Brunswick."

Ari Goldring had his bar mitzvah at the synagogue 10 years ago. He said luckily, no services were scheduled there Friday night.

But his friends and family were grieving the loss of an historic structure and religious symbol.

"It's such a beautiful building and now it's gone," he said.

But most sacred were the several Torah scrolls burned in the blaze. Firefighters saved one when a Rabbi pointed a female firefighter to one Torah, and she rushed in to rescue it.

"It's significant. This building is significant and very historic building, and you know, the community is going to miss it, I'm sure," Rawls said.

There were no injuries in the blaze.

Fire crews were to be on the scene throughout the night, since there were still hot spots inside.

Investigators did not know what caused the fire late Friday, they did not suspect anything suspicious.

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