The sound of the explosion was unmistakable.
The music teacher, Mrs. Seibold, directed students to the door, but it was already too late. They were repelled by thick, billowing clouds of smoke and flames that engulfed the hallway. They immediately retreated to the windows at the back of the classroom, breaking the glass and pushing themselves through the small window panes as flames overtook the classroom.
“If you didn’t get out within a minute,” recalled Dennis Cervi, a childhood survivor of the Cleveland Hill School fire, “you didn’t make it.”
Sadly, 15 students – all between the ages of 10 and 12 years old – didn’t make it. The fire that swallowed up the simple, wooden annex sandwiched between Cleveland Hill’s elementary and high schools is thought to be the deadliest school fire in the history of the state.
Students were found huddled near the broken windows, likely victims of smoke inhalation. Some were so badly burned that grief-stricken parents were left to identify their children based on nothing more than the clothes they were wearing to school that day. Those fortunate enough to escape the blaze were left with the scars – some physical, some mental – from that fateful day. Twenty students were hospitalized.
The exact cause of the fire from March 31, 1954, remains unknown, but it is generally assumed that it was the result of coal dust ignited from a boiler in the annex’s basement. While the events leading up to the fire remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, its effects are recognizable to most of us today: Schools across the nation regularly conduct fire drills, alarms are directly connected to fire stations, and building codes requiring specific window sizes (so windows may serve as emergency exits) are commonplace.
The very construction of the annex likely contributed to the spread of the fire. The annex, built to accommodate the burgeoning school district during the nation’s baby boom, was a wood-framed structure with clapboard siding and a shingled roof – a common design for school districts seeking quick fixes to accommodate growing student populations.
Following the fire, however, many of those same school districts decided to tear down such buildings in place of ones made from brick or similar materials. A report from the National Fire Protection Association published the following month also blamed the installation of combustible fiberboard ceiling tiles found throughout the one-story building.
Following the horrific fire, the charred remains of the wooden annex were quickly demolished. Today, a parking lot for school district employees stands in its place. A memorial at the front of Cleveland Hill School and exhibit inside it remind future generations of students of the awful tragedy that occurred there.