Even today, more than 60 years after it took place, the Cleveland Hill School fire still haunts the memories of those who lived through it, and all the generations that have followed.
It happened on March 31, 1954 — a horrific flash fire that burned through a one-story wooden annex at the Cheektowaga school, trapping in a music room 38 sixth-graders, two teachers and a choir gown salesman. The building went up like tinder, and those trapped in the room had only seconds to escape. They smashed the windows, but it was hard to squeeze through the small metal frames that held the panes of glass; still worse, the rush of incoming air intensified the flames. Ten students died in the room; five more later died in hospital of their burns. At least 15 other children and adults suffered burns.
Those are the bare numbers, but the details, including the many examples of courage, sacrifice and compassion displayed that day by students, teachers, neighbors and passersby, are heartbreaking. The 11-year-old boy who got out of the room but went back in to try to save his girlfriend; neither survived. The teacher who helped get many of the students to safety while suffering burns and smoke inhalation, injuries from which it would take her two years to recover. Another teacher who carried two burn victims out of the fire, knowing that her own daughter was still trapped somewhere inside; her daughter died in the room. The neighbor across the street who opened her home, before the fire trucks and ambulances arrived, to take in eight badly burned children, and the school nurse who worked alone to treat them. The driver whose car was flagged down and who drove five victims to hospital. The many teachers and administrators who doused their clothes with water and tried to enter the burning annex, only to be beaten back by the heat and the smoke.
The 15 who died, all age 10 or 11: Verna Bagley, Patricia Blendowski, Bruce Brand, Marlene Dupont, Michael Hause, George Hoffman, Suzanne Jors, Donald Kelleher, Elizabeth Lies, John Mendofik, Marlene Miller, Blaine Poss, Reba Smith, Patricia Steger, Barbara Watkins.
The most comprehensive and moving account of the Cleveland Hill fire is found on a blog written by Edward Marek. It is accompanied by a remarkable page filled with reminiscences of the fire sent in by readers, including several who were Cleve Hill students at the time.
Those who suffered burns have had to live with their injuries for the rest of their lives. But beyond the physical scars are the psychological ones, even among the uninjured and those who were not in the annex when it burned. While a few found ways to cope with the memories that haunted them, many, understandably, found it impossible. They had nightmares, were deathly afraid of any kind of fire, were burdened with survivors’ guilt. Melba Seibold, one of the music teachers credited with saving so many students’ lives, the one who took two years to recover from her own injuries, said near the end of her long life, “I often wonder, do people think I should have done more on the occasion to have been able to save more people?”
Jackson C. Frank suffered burns over 50 percent of his body; during his months-long recovery in the burn unit at Meyer Memorial Hospital he learned how to play guitar. He became a writer and singer of beautiful, achingly melancholy songs, all obliquely about the fire and the emotional devastation of its aftermath (one song, “Marlene,” is about a classmate who died in the fire). Frank had an album produced by Paul Simon and songs performed by Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, but he could not emerge from the physical and psychological anguish he constantly experienced. He wound up homeless, and died at age 56.
After the Cleveland Hill fire, new school safety measures were imposed across the state and across the nation. Wooden buildings were outlawed and large windows were mandated as part of a sweeping update of school building codes, and a strict program of compulsory fire drills was put in place. Other grim lessons were learned: how the fire spread, how to treat a sudden, massive influx of burn victims. And, many years later, how Cleveland Hill honors the memory of those whose lives were shattered that day. Today, there is a memorial at the Cheektowaga Town Park and another at the school — and sometimes on the anniversary of that awful March 31, a heart-rending ceremony where the names of the dead are read, and a bell tolls 15 times.
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director