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‘It’s done in such a way that we will always remember’

Members of the Cleveland Hill High School Class of 1960 crowded around a sixth-grade class photo Wednesday night, trying to match names to faces and recalling foggy memories.

But this wasn’t their 55th reunion. That will take place later, in the summer.

The photo was part of a new interactive historical and educational center formally unveiled Wednesday night that documents the fire that swept through a wooden annex to the school March 31, 1954, killing 15 students.

“The way they’ve approached it, it’s something to learn from,” said Mary Margaret Romano-Helenbrook. “It’s done in such a way that we will always remember.”

She had just left the music classroom that burned late that Wednesday morning in 1954 and was in her homeroom to retrieve some art supplies before returning to the annex.

“We passed those kids in the hall, in the tunnel, and it was minutes,” she said, surrounded by fellow classmates Judy Norton and Judie Bailey. “It was only minutes.”

Wednesday’s unveiling was a private gathering for those with an intimate, personal connection to the tragedy. It was for people like James Marchese, a third-grader at the time, whose sister, Judith, was in the room when the explosion and fire occurred. Marchese pointed her out in the bottom-right corner of the class photo.

“I heard the explosion,” Marchese said. “It sounded like a big 50-gallon drum had tipped over.”

He saw smoke billowing down the hallway and ran outside where he was told his sister had escaped through a window.

“My sister was sitting outside the window in the snow and her dress was burned up,” he said.

She survived her severe burns, Marchese said, and went on to a long career as a nurse at Deaconess Hospital where she introduced her brother to his future wife, Sandra, who also attended Wednesday’s event. Marchese said he was there to honor his sister, who died in 2011, and the others in that class who lived through Cleveland Hill’s darkest day.

“Now our past tragedy, recovery and resilience can be told accurately,” Board President Robert C. Polino told the crowd of about 50 people.

The new exhibit pulls together yellowed newspaper reports, black-and-white photos and other archived material as a permanent and definitive account of the fire and its impact. The centerpiece is an interactive touchscreen that breaks the topic down by “People,” “History” and “Outcomes.”

“Our darkest days are behind us, our brightest days are ahead,” said Superintendent Jon T. MacSwan. “But the foundation with which we build on in the future will be our history. The interactive educational center will maintain our history and tell the Cleveland Hill story for generations to come.”

Terry Hillery is one from a younger generation who hoped to learn more about the fire 61 years ago and pay tribute to its victims.

His mother, June Mahany, was the student-teacher in the music room who helped students escape to safety. He drove Wednesday from his home in Connecticut for the unveiling.

“For me, it was nothing about my mother, it’s nothing about our family, it’s about these kids and paying respects to them,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”

Hillery was the last to leave Wednesday’s event.

He stood alone, tapping the glowing touchscreen, reading all-too-brief obituaries and learning of 15 lives cut short but not forgotten.

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com