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Cleveland Hill remembers victims of fatal 1954 school fire

For the students of Cleveland Hill School, that Wednesday 60 years ago should have been a return to normalcy.

An early-spring storm had given students a snow day on Tuesday, and children returned to their classes ready to power through the rest of the year.

But March 31, 1954, was anything but normal. A fire engulfed one of the school’s elementary classrooms, killing 15 and injuring more than 20 others. It is believed to be the worst school fire in state history.

Late that Wednesday morning six decades ago, more than two dozen sixth-grade students were in Melba Seibold’s music class, in a wooden annex of the school, when everybody in the room heard an explosion.

Dennis Cervi was 10 years old and the youngest child in the class.

Now 70, he can still remember how, as fire and smoke swept through the room, children hesitated. The discipline taught in school made everyone think twice about breaking the windows to escape, he recounted.

“There was a lot of smoke,” he said. “None of the windows were open. As a 10-year-old, they didn’t teach you to break windows. Somebody did break one, and I crawled through.”

On Saturday, a standing-room-only crowd of more 800 gathered in the Cleveland Hill High School auditorium. Many wiped away tears, recalling acts of heroism as they honored the 15 sixth-graders who died in the fire.

On that day, nearly 40 children were trapped in the music room, and only 24 survived – including Bonnie Rowland Haller, who was on hand for the “We Remember” ceremony.

She recounted Saturday how student teacher June Mahaney was able to break a window and push her out as flames spread through the classroom.

“It was a loud explosion. The teacher told everyone to run to the door, but I was in the back. I was one of only two students who did not get burned,” she said. “I was small, and the student teacher was able to break a window.”

The district didn’t hold an official memorial service until the 40th anniversary in 1994. An engraved memorial was built in Cheektowaga Town Park, and the district followed with its own in 2004 for the 50th anniversary. However, the Cleveland Hill’s memorial was located behind the school. It was hard for the public to get to it.

In honor of the 60th anniversary, the district has moved the memorial to the front of the district offices on Mapleview Road.

“It took this district 40 years to fully recognize the remembrance of the fire,” Board of Education President Robert Polino said. “We actually caught a lot of flak for keeping [the 40th anniversary] low-key, and it’s grown since then.”

Cervi recounted the events of that terrible March day.

“The fire was immediate, and it was floor to ceiling right away,” he said in a phone conversation from his seasonal home in Florida. “The whole building went up soon after.”

His classmates moved to the windows of the first-floor classroom. But in 1954, the panes were small compared to today’s.

Teachers ran into another problem: The windows were jammed.

Eleven-year-old Tommy Ray punched through one of the windows with his fist and dived through, suffering burns around his ears. Another boy followed.

The fire was closing in. Cervi was burned on his arm and face, but managed to crawl through the narrow window.

He didn’t notice the cut on his leg until he got to the hospital. He was hospitalized for nearly two weeks for treatment of the cut and the third-degree burns to his body.

Cervi remembered two kids, burned nearly black, escaping the classroom after him. They both died afterward.

The rest of his classmates desperately tried to escape through the small windows. But by that time, the fire had engulfed the frames of the windows, and some of the kids were afraid to go through.

Witnesses saw 10-year-old Blaine Poss push three children out of the window, saving their lives. Poss returned to the classroom to help his girlfriend, Reba Smith; both perished in the fire.

Elsewhere in the school, faculty and staff quickly moved the rest of the students into an auditorium in another building.

Richard L. Odien, an 11-year-old sixth-grader whose classroom was across the hall, recalled seeing the principal re-enter the building as Odien was leaving. The principal’s face was covered in soot.

“I didn’t see [the fire], but you can smell the smoke,” Odien said. “You can tell something was going on. My classmates saw a great deal more than I did.”

A music teacher led the children in song to try to calm them. Odien remembered the nervous energy in the room.

“I’m sure we sat there for hours,” said Odien, who retired after 27 years as a teacher with the Depew School District. “They tried to entertain us. It was an unusual day. You looked around the auditorium and wondered who wasn’t there.”

Once firefighters were able to enter the music room, they found several burned bodies huddled against the windows. Investigators said the victims probably died from smoke inhalation.

Some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, forcing family members to examine pieces of clothing to identify the dead.

Nobody could confirm what started the fire. An Erie County grand jury believed it was either spontaneous combustion in a nearby closet or lavatory, or the ignited coal dust of a boiler.

The loss of life scarred the community. Fifteen children, all between the ages of 10 and 12, were gone.

Bruce Brand was involved in scouting, as was John Mendofik, who loved playing sports. Verna Bagley was rehearsing for the school production of “Hansel and Gretel” at the time of the fire. Donald Kelleher was looking forward to riding the bicycle he got for Christmas to school when the weather warmed up. The bike was never used.

“These are not just names in history,” said Thomas Kulaszewski, Cleveland Hill School Board vice president. “These were children – children who did all the things sixth-graders usually do.”

Reaction to the tragedy was swift. Administrators in neighboring schools moved to tear down any wooden structures they had on their grounds. New laws to increase the size and type of windows in schools to improve fire safety were approved.

But other changes were slow to take effect. When students resumed regular classes at Cleveland Hill, there was no special assembly to talk about the tragedy, no counselors brought in to help talk the children through their grief.

“In those days, they didn’t give you help,” Cervi said. “My parents said I blocked a lot of it out.”

For six to eight months after the fire, Cervi would wake up in the middle of the night screaming.

“I pushed my dressers against the door. My parents had to push their way in,” he said.

Does Cervi still think about the fire?

“Not much anymore,” he said. “To be honest, it’s something that I blocked out. I don’t have a fear of fire or classrooms, but it’s something I don’t think about until somebody brings it up.”

It took decades for the community to heal from the loss.

“For the first 20 years after the fire, I think everybody in Cleve Hill was the victim,” Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon MacSwan said.

The tragedy remains in the hearts and minds of Cleveland Hill’s Class of 1960. In addition to class reunions, many classmates still have informal meetings by getting coffee at Wegmans every month.

“I’ve often said [the fire] brought the class together,” Odien said. “After 60 years, I still attend Mass at the UB Newman Center, and there are three other couples [from Cleveland Hill] that I see there every week.”

Cleveland Hill is looking into creating an interactive display about the fire that will inform users not only about the day of the tragedy, but also about the people who died and the changes in fire safety that came afterward. Some students are even considering making a documentary about the tragedy.

During Saturday’s ceremony, Joseph Lewis, chief of the Cleveland Hill Fire Company, said the tragedy led to changes that have helped to save lives.

“At that time, there were no emergency exits, and fire drills were not mandated,” Lewis said.

Kulaszewski wondered what might have been.

“We will never know how those 15 children would have changed the world,” he said. “Cleveland Hill as a school district and a community cherishes its children. This horrible fire taught us how precious the time is that we have with our children. This is the greatest legacy of those 15 children.”

A standing ovation rippled through the crowd, as fourth- and fifth-graders sang the school’s alma mater toward the end of the program.

Odien spoke at the dedication of a permanent memorial stone and was part of the planning committee. He said the Class of 1960 remains close. And he said when they talk, their conversation invariably turns to the fire and their lost classmates.

“We just never forget them,” Odien said afterward.

MacSwan believes the fire can be used as a teaching opportunity.

“We think it’s important to discuss it,” MacSwan said. “We may not have been there, but it still affects us in many ways. We just want to make sure the history is never forgotten.”

News Staff Reporter Nancy A. Fischer contributed to this report email: