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Barbara Blackburn: 60 years later, memory of fire burns brightly

I saw them that morning as we passed each other in the halls. Their smiles electrified their faces, and they were fired by an enthusiasm typical of sixth-graders, who have so much to anticipate.

There was Reba, the minister’s daughter, a little soldier of the cross, always recruiting members for our Sunday school. Her mother had not thought it strange when Reba had inquired about becoming an angel. Joey and George clowned with each other. Betsy walked in a glowing orbit, her thoughts turned toward the impending operetta, in which she had the lead role. Tony proudly chattered about his birthday party that afternoon. “Yes, Tony,” we said, “we’ll see you after school.”

Their feet in the corridor sounded the same tune, and their voices spread the same incessant reverberation. They were sheltered from the outside – the cold snow one would not expect to encounter on a late March day, when the warm winds of spring should have blown. The snow had rushed in unexpectedly, and no one thought this smothering carpet foretold of the unusual.

We were scarcely settled in our classroom when suddenly a deep gong pierced our ears, and an odd feeling gnawed inside me. Startled, we jumped from our seats. The hall was black with smoke belching out a massive, angry cloud. We groped along the hall and felt our way down the three flights of stairs. The sound of coughing mingled with the plaintive cries.

We welcomed the outside as a child welcomes a birthday present. So glad were we to be there that our bodies, tingling with the severe chill, were oblivious to the cold. Exclamations of inquisition permeated the frosty air. The eyes of the teachers kindled fear.

We were filed into the adjacent high school, and into the auditorium. The principal told us, “A fire has broken out in the old annex building, which involves your schoolmates.” His usually calm voice collapsed into a tremble.

The news was gleaned at home as well as beyond our neighborhood. Ten children were dead, five more were in critical condition. The television flashed reports from coast to coast; the radios drummed out the news; the newspapers splashed sprawling headlines: “Cleveland Hill Fire – One of Big Tragedies of the Year.”

Children had become heroes helping to save others. Those who lived told of Reba, who became so burned helping others that she could no longer save herself. This would try the Christian character of her minister father.

My class was in that room only 10 minutes before the fire. March 31, 1954, could have been my epitaph.

For years, I have sought an answer concerning this tragedy in flames. I have thought that perhaps these children were placed on earth for a little while to bring comfort to others, and the silver tears shed by the parents were just interest on the loan – reflecting on a spiritual by Pat Boone, my favorite singer at the time.

As I have thought of this tragedy, I cannot help but harbor thoughts that this occurred at a time when people were building fallout shelters to shield themselves, in a time when the life span had been extended to more than 70 years. Yet on March 31, 1954, 15 children were swallowed by an inescapable force – the flames of destiny.