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Exhibit at Cleve Hill teaches about 1954 school fire that claimed lives of 15 students

The story of the deadly Cleveland Hill School fire of 1954 is finally being told by this small district in north Cheektowaga.

Through yellowed newspaper reports, black-and-white photos and other original material, a new exhibit on school grounds seeks to recognize the significance of that day – March 31, 1954 – when 15 students perished in the blaze.

On Wednesday, a new interactive historical and educational center recounting the fire and its impact will be unveiled in a busy hallway, around a corner from where the one-story wood annex burned nearly 61 years ago.

“It has taken a long time for this community to heal and I in no way am saying that it’s completely healed,” Cleveland Hill School Superintendent Jon T. MacSwan said. “I don’t think it’ll ever be completely healed. But it’s taken a long time for us to get to this point.”

After the fire, a veil of silence fell across the community.

Survivors were not encouraged to share their pain or shown how to cope with the loss of 15 classmates who died in what is believed to be the deadliest school fire in state history. Some survivors have only recently openly discussed the tragedy.

“In those days, they didn’t give you help,” Dennis Cervi told The Buffalo News last year. He was 10 years old and the youngest child in the class. “My parents said I blocked a lot of it out.”

But, with time, Cleveland Hill is slowly coming to terms with its darkest day.

A 50th anniversary memorial stone was moved last year from a secluded courtyard to the school’s front entrance where it joined a new stone bench engraved with the names of the 31 students in that class. Crosses are etched next to the names of those who died.

A standing-room-only gathering was held last year in the high school auditorium to mark the 60th anniversary.

And, now, the permanent exhibit, which school officials said is not meant to memorialize but to inform and inspire.

Cause still unknown

Late that Wednesday morning in 1954, 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.

“Immediately your first response was to run to the doorway to see what was going on,” one survivor says in a student-produced documentary titled “Through the Silence,” which is featured in the exhibit. “Almost immediately the doorway was completely engulfed in flame and the smoke was coming into the room.”

Cervi also tells interviewers the flames spread quickly.

“There wasn’t like five, 10 minutes,” he says. “It was 30 seconds to a minute and the smoke and the heat was horrendous. It was just immediate flame. You couldn’t get to the doors. Go to the windows, you couldn’t open them. A couple people broke some things and climbed out. If you didn’t get out within a minute, you didn’t make it.”

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.

Coming to terms

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

Nearly three years ago the School Board formed a committee to discuss how to observe the approaching 60th anniversary. It was a new consideration. The district didn’t even hold an official memorial service until the 40th anniversary in 1994.

The Cleveland Hill Fire Remembrance Committee hosted a breakfast for survivors. Some of the video from that breakfast is included in the exhibit.

“It was almost impossible not to get teared up listening to the stories going around,” MacSwan said.

After more than 800 people last March packed the auditorium, wiping away tears and remembering acts of heroism, the committee stayed together. There was more work to be done.

“We knew we wanted to do something special, wanted it to be in the building, wanted it to be accessible to kids,” MacSwan said.

They had the idea for the historical and cultural center as a way to preserve archived material and tell the story for future Cleveland Hill Eagles.

“We knew after that if we were going to have this story continue on for generations, we’re going to do it right,” he said. “We don’t ever want to look back and regret doing it not quite the Cleveland Hill way.”

Students involved

Sixth-graders were recruited last spring to conduct the research that would eventually comprise the exhibit. They delved into boxes of archived material in an “inquiry-based” quest to separate fact from fiction.

“We started by just generating questions – myself included,” said social studies teacher Betty Haynes. “We created a series of guiding questions for our research. The kids did the bulk of the research and it was really interesting watching when they would make discoveries.”

Students learned the annex was built to accommodate an influx of new students from the Baby Boom after World War II. They met with Town Supervisor and Historian Mary F. Holtz.

They learned what it was like growing up in a suburb of Buffalo in the 1950s, why women were referred to by their full married names in the newspaper and why women were the first to respond to the fire because most were homemakers.

History was made real for today’s students in the small, tight-knit community as they recognized the family names of victims and the streets or even houses victims were living in at the time of the fire.

“We’re learning about these kids that are our age,” said Sherilann Lorenz, 12. “It’s so weird because we’re in sixth grade. They’re our age and they lost their lives to something that happened in our school.”

The significance of those realizations was not lost on the young students, Haynes said.

“It was very sad,” she said. “It was a hard project to do. We’re teaching sixth- and seventh-graders and these kids were in sixth grade when they died. There were several moments where it was hard to talk about.”

Interactive display

Most of the district’s 1,500 students each day will pass by the exhibit in the wide hallway that district officials call “Main Street.” It’s where the complex’s elementary, middle and high schools are linked.

The interactive display about the fire informs 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.

The exhibit has a series of four substrate panels to even out the wall, printed graphics mounted to aluminum with a special matte laminate that is fire- and graffiti-resistant, said Jean DuBow of Hadley Exhibits, which produced the display after consulting with the committee.

The centerpiece is an interactive touchscreen that breaks the topic down by “People,” “History” and “Outcomes.” The exhibit relies on a wealth of primary source material, including newspaper clippings, photographs and video interviews.

“When I was there a guy said, ‘You better pray to God because some of you are going to die,’ ” Cervi recounts in the interview. “As an adult you don’t tell 10-year-old kids that. But I remember hearing that. That has stayed with me my whole life.”

Elsewhere in the interactive display, a photo published in Life magazine shows Cervi recovering in a hospital bed “with help of pile of comic books,” according to a caption.

Later, a newspaper article reports the condition of eight hospitalized children burned in the fire, including Cervi, whose condition “was so improved that he was discharged.”

“There was something about the yellowed newspaper articles and the old photos that really grabbed our designers and provided the basis of the coloration you see in the exhibit,” DuBow said by email. “Once we looked at all the newspaper articles – there were so many – it made sense to group the articles as the source material for the exhibit.”

One of the most striking inclusions is an illustration by Pulitzer Prize-winning Buffalo News artist Bruce Shanks. Titled “Epitaph for Eleven” – the number of students that had died by that time. The drawing shows charred timbers spelling out the word “Why” with rising smoke spelling out the same word in huge plumes. In the foreground on a piece of paper is written “Cleveland Hill School Tragedy.”

But users also learn about the good that resulted from the fire.

“It changed the way doctors treated burn victims,” said librarian Janice Kelly, who noticed citations about the fire in medical journals.

Fire drills, direct connections to 911 and fire departments, rules regarding window size and school construction methods are all a result of the tragedy of the Cleve Hill fire, according to one of the wall panels.

“It fills a void that I think needs to be told,” said Kelly, who also served on the committee. “I think kids hopefully will learn that even through tragedy, miracles happen. Things happen that help other people.”

Teaching tool

The exhibit is envisioned primarily as a teaching tool for grades 3 through 12, MacSwan said. School officials want it to be the definitive account of the fire.

“It’s a part of the school’s history,” said Sherilann, the seventh-grader. “To me, what it means is that you’re part of that history in a way because it’s your school district and you live within that.”

A small private unveiling ceremony is scheduled to be held Wednesday with survivors and families from the fire. The exhibit will be open to the public from 1 to 7 p.m. March 28 to coincide with the school’s musical production. Other visits may be arranged by appointment with the district office.

One of the exhibit’s four panels is titled “Results” and is composed entirely of keywords agreed upon by the fire remembrance committee. Three words overshadow all the others – “Recovery,” “Strength” and “Change.”

“So many of the words up there on the wall are what was thrust upon this community,” MacSwan said. “It was just a devastating time to live in Cleveland Hill. The community had to come together to get through it.”

School officials say the new exhibit is just the latest step in that decades-long grieving process.

“Even after 60 years, it can still be understandably difficult to discuss the horrific events of that cold March day,” the narrator says in the documentary epilogue. “Through the silence has come a voice, one collective voice that is saying Cleveland Hill will never forget the events of that day.”

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com