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Cleveland Hill school fire’s legacy reaps safety out of tragedy

Public memorials to the Cleveland Hill fire of 1954 are not hard to find exactly 61 years later. A monument in Cheektowaga Town Park dedicated six months after the March 31 fire is surrounded by 15 crabapple trees, one planted for each of the schoolchildren who perished in the blaze.

On school grounds, there’s a 40th-anniversary plaque on the wall of the elementary school entrance nearest the wooden annex that burned that day. A 50th-anniversary memorial stone is located in front of the district’s administrative offices. And a new interactive historical and educational center recounting the fire and its impact was unveiled earlier this month.

There are also less obvious – but monumentally important – outcomes from the fire.

Take a close look around the next time you’re in a school building. Notice the fire alarms, extinguishers, rescue windows and frequent drills? They can all be traced back to that fateful day, experts say.

“All of that put together has made our school buildings so safe when it comes to fires,” said David G. Hess, Cleveland Hill’s director of facilities. “That fire has really made a difference.”

The fire touched virtually every aspect of fire safety in schools with new laws and regulations on the placement of windows, halls and doors, and control of heating plants.

On the day of the fire, notification to the Fire Department was via telephone from the school to the Police Department, which then sounded the town’s fire horn. A report from the National Fire Protection Association found that “the most significant factor in the loss of life was the delayed detection of the fire.”

A set of new health and safety regulations for new school buildings had been adopted by the commissioner of education Feb. 26, 1954, and “filed” March 31, 1954 – the same day as the fire. But it was amended following the fire to also include all existing buildings, Hess said.

Automatic audible fire alarms inside schools directly connected to police and fire departments, as well as sprinkler systems, were mandated, he said.

Lawmakers, public horrified

Lawmakers and the public were horrified by the tragedy and reacted very quickly by drafting legislation, said Town Supervisor Mary F. Holtz, who is also town historian.

“They realized that our children’s lives were at stake,” said Holtz, whose father, Benedict T. Holtz, was supervisor at the time of the fire.

In 1955, the State Legislature passed a law requiring every district to do annual safety inspections of their buildings. Fire and building codes were updated requiring “a second means of egress” for all classrooms such as a rescue window or a second door to a hallway.

The windows were the Cleveland Hill students’ only means of escape. But the double-hung windows wouldn’t budge. They were nailed or painted shut. The teacher and students used their hands to break the windows. Some of the smaller students crawled through the tiny panes. Today, regulations require rescue windows in classrooms to have a minimum 6-square-foot opening.

Also after the fire, stairways were required to be equipped with fire doors “to control the spread of smoke and fire,” according to state Education Department regulations.

Heating plant safety regulations were created. An Erie County grand jury said the condition of the annex’s heating plant was “extremely defective.” The fire started either by spontaneous combustion in the lavatories or a closet, or in the outer chambers or duct work of the coal-fueled boiler, the grand jury found. Under that theory, coal dust in the loft ignited.

There also were new requirements for at least 12 fire drills a year and fire extinguishers in hallways, spaced not more than 100 feet apart.

As a result, not since Cleveland Hill tragedy the has a student been killed or seriously injured in a public school fire in New York, according to the state Education Department.

Movement away from wood

After the fire there was a national movement away from temporary wood-frame school buildings.

“The result of this fire is they started building brick buildings, fire drills, the whole nine yards,” Mary Holtz said.

The Cleveland Hill School Annex was constructed in 1941 by the federal government due to an influx of defense workers and their families into Cheektowaga. The roof was made of boards over wood trusses, while the walls were wood framing covered with sheathing and clapboards.

The annex was used to accommodate a rapid increase in students from the postwar baby boom, Holtz said.

After the Cleveland Hill fire, school districts across the nation re-evaluated their fire safety.

The Sweet Home School District closed its Ellicott Creek and Sweet Home annex buildings, according to an April 4, 1954, newspaper account that is included in the new interactive exhibit.

“Closing of the annexes followed a fire inspection Friday night,” the account reads. “It was done because of the interior design of the structures, which are wooden, with brick exteriors.”

Another 1954 account reports that Buffalo Mayor Steven Pankow ordered a special “watchdog” team of top city officials to take immediate measures to guard against fires in the city’s private and public schools.

“Formation of the fire-inspection team followed an emergency meeting in the mayor’s office,” the account reads. “The meeting had been called by the mayor to reassure parents that everything possible is being done to avoid a repetition of the Cleveland Hill disaster.”

Cheektowaga underwent a similar inspection of all public and private schools in the town, especially wooden structures, “to determine whether steps are necessary to prevent the possibility of another tragic school fire,” according to a newspaper account. The fire also resulted in changes to medical treatment for burn victims.

Six doctors collaborated to write an article in the August 1955 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association titled “Treatment of Mass Civilian Burn Casualties: Care of Cleveland Hill School Fire Victims.”

All 20 burn victims were admitted to the emergency rooms of Edward J. Meyer Memorial Hospital during a 30-minute period, medical librarian Janice E. Kelly said by email. Extensive blood supplies were used for the patients, quite a bit of fluids were administered along with antibiotics. Fever was a problem with three cases rising to 105.8, 105.2 and 107.6. All three survived. Those experiencing serious fever issues were packed in ice, given ice water treatments for edemas and had fans blowing cool air over their exposed bodies. Respiratory problems were the most worrisome.

“The case material was somewhat unique in that all casualties were in the same age group (10 to 12 years), all burn wounds were sustained almost simultaneously, and flame burns were responsible for the injury in each instance,” according to the article’s abstract. “The mode of handling these cases is the subject of this paper emphasizing, as it does, the need for civilian general hospitals to be prepared to meet such disaster demands.”

‘They know what could happen’

Today, Cleveland Hill takes fire safety as seriously as can be.

“I get no pushback or trouble from people who might otherwise give me a hard time about a coffee pot in their classroom or a ceramic heater under their desk,” Hess said.

“They don’t do it because they know what could happen. They’ve seen what disaster can come about from a situation like that.”

At annual meetings of the New York State School Facilities Association, Hess said the Cleveland Hill fire “inevitably” comes up during training sessions.

Reaction to the tragedy was swift with calls for changes almost immediately after the fire. A newspaper editorial titled “Remove the Hazards” called for a review of construction defects and a review of storage of flammable materials.

“It is to be regretted that some of the awareness of the dangers to the lives of school children did not exist before the tragedy,” the editorial said. “… But if conditions which are widespread in Western New York can be remedied in time, the victims of Wednesday’s horror will not have died in vain.”