Annie Chivers always felt like she was a stranger looking in on the tragic Allen Avenue fire 50 years ago that killed her sister, six of her brothers and 11 other people.
Chivers, then Annie Reid, was 4 years old when the fire broke out at 4:36 a.m. Nov. 16, 1957, and she remembers only being tossed from a second-story window and looking up at flames bursting from the tenement building where her family lived.
She returned Saturday to the graves of her siblings and felt their spirits so strongly she fell to the ground in grief.
"I couldn't remember any of their faces, but when I was on the ground yesterday I felt the love of my brothers," Chivers said. "I always ask myself, Why me? Why did I survive?"
Dozens of people gathered at Fire Headquarters on Walnut Avenue on Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of the deadliest fire in the city's history and to unveil a plaque purchased by the Black Pioneers of Niagara that bears the names of the 18 people who died.
The organization is also planning to set up a scholarship fund in memory of the victims.
"There is no way to avoid the sadness," said City Administrator Bill Bradberry, who was a young boy living down the street when the fire erupted. "There is no way to not feel the pain, but in spite of all of that, we are here today to recommit ourselves to making sure this never happens again so that these lives that were lost were not lost in vain."
Firefighters from then-active Walnut Avenue fire hall were the first to arrive on the scene that cold morning.
Retired firefighter Nolen Curtis remembers the glow in the sky and the size of the fire that prevented firefighters from saving people trapped inside.
"Our dedication is to save life, limb and property. We didn't do that that day," Curtis recalled. "I haven't forgotten anything about that fire. . . . When you don't save that life, everybody feels sad. That was a sad day for everyone."
Lucille Averhart, who was also a Reid before she married, was 15 when the fire broke out. She is the one who tossed 4-year-old Annie from the window before jumping herself and fracturing her nose.
For years, nobody talked of the fire, which started when an oil furnace exploded in the building's basement.
"It's a long time coming," Averhart said of Sunday's remembrance. "You don't want to think that your family died in vain in a place that wasn't fit to live in in the first place."
The fire highlighted the poor living conditions for the city's newest residents who arrived from the deep South or from oversees looking for work in the thriving industrialplants in the 1940s and 1950s. The tragedy led to upgrades in public housing in the city and a focus on building code enforcement.
"There was a time, if you were poor, it was bad enough; if you were black, it was even worse. But if you had a big family, it was almost impossible to find a place to live," Bradberry said.
The Ewing family lost nine people to the blaze. But Annie Richardson, whose uncle lost his wife and children to the fire, said her family rarely talked about the tragedy.
"It's like everybody forgot or wanted to forget about it," said Annie Richardson. "People just kept quiet. Nobody wanted to talk about it, and nobody wanted to think about it."