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Packed Cheektowaga ceremony marks 60th anniversary of school tragedy

A standing-room-only crowd of more 800 people gathered in the Cleveland Hill High School auditorium today, wiping away tears and remembering acts of heroism as they as they honored 15 sixth-graders who died in a fire that roared through their elementary school 60 years ago, March 31, 1954.

On that day, 38 children were trapped in the school’s music room, only 24 survived.

Bonnie Rowland Haller was one of those survivors, and she showed up for the “We remember” ceremony today.

She recounted 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.”

Cleveland Hill Fire Chief Joseph Lewis described that day as one of the most tragic events in New York, but said it 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.

And school board vice president Thomas S. 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.”

During the ceremony, a spontaneous standing ovation rippled through the crowd, when the fourth and fifth graders, not much younger than those who died, sang the school’s alma mater near the end of the program.

Class of 1960 classmate Richard L. Odien, of Williamsville, spoke at the dedication of a permanent memorial stone and was part of the planning committee. He said the Class of 1960 remains close, still meeting for coffee on a monthly basis. And he said when they talk, their conversation invariably turns to the fire and their lost classmates.

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

Odien became a teacher, teaching fourth and fifth graders and middle school, retiring after 27 years in the Depew School District.

“They never had fire drills in those days, in 1954," he said. “When I was a teacher and my fifth graders went outside for a fire drill and were talking and laughing, I would bring them back in and tell them about this fire. Every year, I would tell them about this fire.”