It is 50 years since the Cleveland Hill Elementary School fire took 15 lives
By BARBARA O'BRIEN
News Southtowns Bureau
HARRY SCULL JR./Buffalo News
Ruth Poss' son Blaine, in portrait, pushed three children to safety before returning to help his girlfriend, only to perish when a wall collapsed on him. With Mrs. Poss are her children, Jo Ann Abna and Harry R. Poss.
Little remained of Cleveland Hill Elementary School following a fast-moving fire that claimed 15 lives and injured at least 19 others on March 31, half a century ago.
This class picture shows, with one exception, the children who were in the Cleveland Hill School fire. The adult at left is Thomas J. Griffin, homeroom teacher. He was ill at home on the day of the fire. The students are: 1 - Marlene Miller; 2 - Joseph Magistrale; 3 - Allen De Forest; 4 - Thomas F. Ray; 5 - Michael W. Hause; 6 - Frances Kozlowska; 7 - Marlene Du Pont; 8 - Judith Marchese; 9 - Richard Hoff; 10 - John T. Mendofik; 11 - Blaine Poss; 12 - Bruce Brand; 13 - Patricia Noel; 14 - Patricia Blendowski; 15 - Barbara Watkins; 16 - Jackson Frank; 17 - Donald Kelleher; 18 - Dennis Cervi; 19 - James Luongo; 20 - Reba J. Smith; 21 - Barbara Benson, who moved out of the district before the fire; 22 - Patricia Steger; 23 - George Hoffman; 24 - Ann Jaeckle; 25 - Verna H. Bagley; 26 - Lawrence Wojtkowski; 27 - Elizabeth L. Lies; 28 - Suzanne Jors; 29 - Nancy Love; 30 - Michael Cody.
Harry R. Poss remembers the day 50 years ago when his mother couldn't stop crying.
"My family went nuts. Everybody was crying," he said.
It was March 31, 1954, the day Harry's brother, Blaine, and nine of his sixth-grade classmates perished in their music classroom at Cleveland Hill Elementary School in Cheektowaga.
Their bodies were found huddled underneath the windows, which would not open. Five other burned classmates died in the hospital, and at least 19 more pupils were injured. Some suffered excruciating burns that left them scarred for life.
For others, the scars may have been less visible but just as painful.
"I think, if he would have lived, how our lives would have been so much different," said Poss, who was 6 at the time.
The community and the nation grieved with Cleveland Hill, and the fire brought about changes in building codes throughout the nation. The 15 deaths were one of the worst school fires in New York State.
Day started like any other
It was a Wednesday, the day after Cleveland Hill and area schools had been closed because of an early-spring snowstorm. The time was 11:22 a.m.
Melba Seibold stood in the front of the annex room, instructing her students on the proper use of rhythm sticks.
A student teacher sat at the piano. A choir gown salesman unboxed new gowns in the back of the room.
No one knew that a deadly fire was brewing in the wood frame annex, waiting to burst through the building in an instant.
"I heard this big noise, and I said, "Oh my God, what's that?' Then all of a sudden in the hall, floor to ceiling, this red fire came by, with black specs in it," Seibold recalls today.
Seibold knew the windows would be the only escape. But when she tried to open the double hung windows, they wouldn't budge. She used her hands to break the windows. Others used chairs. Some of the smaller students crawled through the tiny panes.
"Somebody broke a window," recalled Dennis Cervi, who spent four days in critical condition. "I climbed through a little pane."
No automatic alarms
Some pupils were hesitant to break the windows. In other well-disciplined classrooms, students waited to get their teacher's attention before pointing out the fire.
There were no automatic alarm systems in schools that would instantly notify a fire and police dispatcher of the emergency. Instead, school administrators had to ring the fire alarm bell, then call the police on the telephone. The police then called the fire hall, and firefighters blew the fire whistle.
On that morning, Cleveland Hill volunteer firefighters happened to be holding a drill, said Ronald J. Kamholz, whose father fought the fire. Firemen saw the smoke and started racing toward it. Kamholz, who later became a decorated Buffalo firefighter and is an exempt Cleveland Hill firefighter, was in a fifth-grade classroom on the second floor, overlooking the annex. His teacher was writing at the chalkboard. Although the fire alarm had not gone off yet, children sitting by the window could see the smoke coming from the fire. No one yelled, but the teacher finally turned around to see what the commotion in the classroom was.
Kamholz remembers hearing the breaking glass and screams.
"We could see kids being pushed out the window," he said.
The second floor filled with smoke. The children were taken to the adjoining high school auditorium.
While it was bedlam in the burning annex, no one told the children in the auditorium what had happened.
Richard L. Odien was a sixth-grader who was not in the ill-fated music class. While going to the high school auditorium, he passed the principal.
"His face was covered with black soot," Odien recalled.
MaryBelle Heimerle was another sixth-grader who had taken music that morning.
"We had just passed those kids in the hall, we had just been in that classroom," she said.
Inside the auditorium, teachers sang and danced to keep the children occupied. Finally, the children were told to go home, Heimerle said. "It took awhile for it to sink in," Heimerle said.
Details of the inferno and the events came out quickly.
One of the elementary teachers, Mary Lies, had bloodstains on her blouse when she told a Sheriff's Department investigator that she carried two of the children away from the burning building. She knew her daughter, Elizabeth L., did not get out of the classroom.
Newspaper accounts tell of Blaine Poss, 11, pushing at least three children out the window.
"He went back in to get his girlfriend," Harry Poss said. "He was out and he went back in, I don't know how. As he was pushing his girlfriend out the window, the wall collapsed on him."
The girl, Reba Smith, died. Her father, the Rev. Charles B. Smith, was the fire company chaplain.
Melba Seibold, the teacher in the classroom where 15 pupils died, wonders today why she didn't think to close the door to the hallway to keep the fire from coming in the room. The broken windows created a draft, pulling the flames into the classroom.
As Seibold desperately pushed children out the window, she could not see anyone coming to help. She didn't know thick smoke was filling the rest of the school and that firemen were on their way. She didn't know her husband, a music teacher in the high school, and others were trying to get into the building to help with the rescue.
Seibold said she decided the only way to save the rest of the children was to run to the office for help. She broke her back falling out of the window. "I often wonder, do people think I should have done more on the occasion to have been able to save more people?" Seibold said.
She spent three months in the hospital, recovering from severe burns and broken bones. Today she is 88 and still plays the organ for functions for Niagara Lutheran Homes.
An Erie County grand jury could not pinpoint the cause of the fire, although it cleared two district employees of criminal responsibility. The fire started either by spontaneous combustion in the lavatories or a closet, or in the outer chambers or duct work of the coal-fueled boiler, the grand jury said. Under that theory, coal dust in the loft ignited.
The grand jury said the condition of the heating plant was "extremely defective." It recommended laws and regulations on the placement of windows, halls and doors, and to control heating plants.
It was the last time a public school child died in a school fire in New York, according to state Department of Education files - evidence that the painful lessons were well-learned.
Today, state regulations require rescue windows in classrooms to have a minimum 6-square-foot opening. At 11 a.m. Saturday, family members of the victims and those who survived, as well as members of the public, will attend the district's memorial service in the high school auditorium on Mapleview Road. They will move outside to the courtyard for the unveiling of a monument bearing the names of all the members of the class and their teachers.
+ Reply to Thread
Results 1 to 5 of 5
Thread: A fire never to be forgotten
03-24-2004, 12:30 PM #1
A fire never to be forgottenShawn M. Cecula
IACOJ Division of Fire and EMS
03-24-2004, 03:12 PM #2
- Join Date
- Dec 1998
- Maryland (but always a Long Islander first)
Thank you for sharing that article. I've lived in New York all of my life and even studied fire science at UNH in CT and have never heard about this fire. I shared it with my fire prevention friends so that they can continue to emphasize the importance of school fire drills and fire safety education (like closing the door to the classroom).
A couple of years ago, a neighboring fire department (Selden) had an elementary school fire during the day, in the winter, and all of the children/staff got out uninjured. That fire dept. has an exceptional fire prevention program and they make a point of going to all of their elementary schools each October. Proof that day that their efforts are worth it.
Diane"When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for my having been there."
-- Jim Henson (1936 - 1990)
03-24-2004, 03:26 PM #3
- Join Date
- May 2002
- Now in Victoria, BC. I'm from beautiful Jasper Alberta in the heart of the Can. Rockies - will always be an Albertan at heart!
Heartbreaking So many lives lost, so many other lives changed forever
Shawn, thank you for sharing this with us.September 11th - Never Forget
I respect firefighters and emergency workers worldwide. Thank you for what you do.
IACOJ CRUSTY CONVENTION CHAIR
RAY WAS HERE FIRST
03-24-2004, 08:12 PM #4
Being a WNY'er all my life, I have heard and read about the Cleveland Hill fire before, but I did not get all the information that was in the article you posted. Thanks for posting it.
This just shows that wherever you live, there is probably a large fire or other disaster within your geographical area's history that can be shared with others."The uniform is supposed to say something about you. You get it for nothing, but it comes with a history, so do the right thing when you're in it."
Battalion Chief Ed Schoales
from 'Report from Ground Zero' pg 149
03-24-2004, 10:22 PM #5
- Join Date
- Nov 2001
Thank you so much for posting this. I also had read about the Cleveland Hill Fire but not in the detail you provided. It is sad that so often it takes tragedy to open our eyes to what should have been.
Users Browsing this Thread
There are currently 1 users browsing this thread. (0 members and 1 guests)