Talking Proud Archives --- Culture

Memoirs of those who lived through the Cleveland Hill School fire of 1954

The memoirs collected since 2006

Updated May 1, 2017


People can add to what I present whenever they are so moved

Before getting started on the memoirs I have received directly, I do want to acknowledge that some have spoken previously and their remarks are documented on the internet. I have listed two at the close of this memoir section.

One that struck me hard was written by Jeff Simon, shown here, for the Buffalo Evening News on August 15, 2009 in an article entitled, "Jeff Simon: The tragic life of Buffalo folk singer Jackson Frank." Simon wrote this:

"I can’t overstate the horror of the 1954 Cleveland Hill fire. Certainly more people died in the Clarence crash of Flight 3407. But the Cleveland Hill fire killed and maimed small children. For more than a decade, there wasn’t a parent in Western New York who didn’t freeze in terror— at least a little—the minute they heard those three words: Cleveland Hill fire."
__________

Laura Beckinghausen was kind enough to send photos of the trees and memorial marker at the Cheektowaga, NY Town Park honoring those who died in the fire. It all comes home looking at these.




"In memory of the children who perished in the Cleveland Hill Extension School Fire, March 31, 1954"
__________

Alan Rizzo, Cheektowaga Bee New!

1p1.preview
More than 60 years after 15 Cleveland Hill students died in a 1954 school fire, music will honor their memory through a new piano lab.

During a meeting on April 5, the Board of Education took a break to head over to the elementary school and dedicate the new lab to the 15 sixth-graders — all of whom were in music class when the fire occurred — and to thank the family of victim Reba June Smith, who donated the funds to make the lab possible.

Board President Robert Polino called the lab a “wonderful resource” for students, indicating that it includes 22 student pianos, Apple TV, and headsets that allow teachers to listen and play along with pupils individually.


Robert J. Williamson James (Jim) Kinney, Scotland

I'm a fan of Jackson C. Frank, from Scotland, and I was researching his tragic life, when I found your page. The song, "Marlene" was written to honour fire victim Marlene Du Pont. It’s one of my favourite songs and may be of interest to others.

If you read the lyrics to the song, you will see they are directly about the fire, refer to her ghost and he states that he loved her. They were apparently boyfriend and girlfriend, as much as you can be at that age.

Here is an example which begins mentioning the furnace explosion, which caused the fire.

The world it explodes
As such a high powered load
To run, to run, to run
Was all I left me
Appeared as breeze
High in the clouds we're free
To fly, to fly away
Was the lesson

You know the fire it burned her life out
Left me little more
I am a crippled singer
And it evens up the score

Jackson C. Frank has influenced many British artists and has been in the press here over recent years. I guessing your interest might be one of local history, however.

James (Jim) Kinney

I was in Junior High at Cleveland Hill School and remember watching the Annex burn on that day in 1954. My classmates and I were in the brick building adjacent to the annex and had no idea there were any students in the building until later. Today I was reading (Your presentation of “Memoirs since 2006”) when I read the one by Jim Hamann. In it he stated his cousin Charles Brand died in the fire. This is incorrect. Bruce Brand died in the fire and was Charles (Skip) Brand's younger brother. Skip was my one best friends and lived down the street from me. Also George (Butch) Hoffman was a friend of mine and lived across the street from me. I was one of the pallbearers at Bruce's funeral and also attended George’s funeral. My parents and I moved to California in the summer of 1954. I have never been back to Cheektowaga since, though I do often think of Ravenswood Terrace (the street I lived on) and my friends I lost in that fire. Thank You for all you have done.

Suzanne Hoff Moore

I was in 1st grade & my brother is Richard Hoff (pictured next to Mr. Griffin) The experience ruined my life, I became an alcoholic, the PTSD I suffered from was debilitating. I was in the cafeteria also...but i remember an explosion that scattered glass & kids running around bleeding and smoke. I remember chaos & fear. The teachers were going to take us into the smoky hall ..we ran the other way out towards the high school....I didn’t get my coat to stand out in the 20 degree weather, my parents didn’t come & get me in the auditorium. They were looking at dead bodies to see if my brother was one of them...he was injured & in the hospital for a few days..I waited outside with no coat, scared to death that this was my fault,. I don’t think anyone took us to the bathroom...so I had an accident, I was afraid I was going to slide under the bus, I was dropped at the neighbors and I think my grandma picked me up and I stayed there til my brother came home from the hospital. My parents assumed that nothing happened to me cause we found out later the cafeteria people were told not to mention the explosion. Consequently, I never had anyone "help" me through what happened. It sounds like many of us had this experience and as I talk to my brother and others who had experienced this awful tragedy, I find some relief after 62 years. Thanks to your efforts with this website.

Leni Beris Dwyer

I do have vivid memories of where I was and what I did that day. Whether my memories are accurate, I don't know. I don't remember the fire being talked about at home or even at school when we returned.

On our way to lunch my fourth grade class walked past the doorway to the annex almost immediately after the explosion. I don't recall the explosion but I do remember black smoke billowing over us and that the boy at the end of our line had singed hair on his head and burned hands because he put his hands over his face as he passed the annex doorway. We were on our way to the lunch room and we thought it was a kitchen fire. Our teacher told us to crouch down low and hold hands so we could be below the smoke and stay together. We made it to the cafeteria and were taken to an exit. For some reason we were told to turn around and go to another exit. A cafeteria lady with a wet cloth over her mouth and nose turned us around and took us to an exit to the outside. I found out by reading the memoirs that Mr. Restorff, the principal, had locked those first doors because it wasn't a safe exit. The way I remember it, we were all quiet - listening - attentive - obedient. I don't remember any panic or chaos.

We were taken to the high school auditorium and I remember sitting there wondering and worrying about my brother.
One of my brother's very good friends, Larry Wojtkowski, who actually lived on our street, was in that room and helped people out of the windows, then was able to escape himself.

My mother says that she and my dance teacher were sitting at our kitchen table having coffee, when Miss Shirley said, "I don't want to alarm you Alyce, but I think the school is on fire."

I don't remember being told what my mom said or did after that.

As was my mom's way, maybe she never told us. She never wanted to alarm us.

The part of the article that says things were different back then, is right. My dad never spoke of his time in the war. In our house, "everything was always going to be alright," no matter what the circumstance. Nothing was ever a cause for alarm. Someone in the memoirs said that back then, no one wanted to call attention to themselves. I believe that may be true. There was no counseling. I don't remember anyone talking about the fire. They may have, but I don't remember it. Maybe that's a blessing.

I did become an elementary school teacher, and started and ended my career teaching fourth grade. Hmmm. Interesting.

I moved to Phoenix, AZ in 1967 and taught here until just three years ago, when I retired. I taught in several different schools over the years and was appalled at how relaxed the safety standards were here for emergency evacuations. I taught at my last school for 30 years and was able to raise those standards by sharing my story, yearly, with faculty, staff, and my students.

I want to thank you for this forum and extend my very belated sympathies to all of those who were impacted by this tragedy.

Mikki Rainey

Thank you for writing the story of the fire. It has haunted me for 60 years. I read it tonight on the Amherst Site on Facebook. All my life no one spoke about it. I have always believed I was the only one who survived. You have given me my life back. I will be 70 in 3 weeks. I still cannot “let it go" but you have given me some peace. I was out the window and I remember the pictures. It is a great kindness to know I wasn't making it all up. Thank you again.

Jack Fix


Hello, thank you for your writings about that horrible day. I was a student (kindergarten). I went to school via baisley taxi in the afternoon sessions around 11:30 am. Moving "wavyness" from the heat was truly very frightening. I have always remembered this most vividly. I have rehashed this memory more often since "9/11". I attended Cleve-Hill for 12 more years and very seldom heard or talked about this tragedy. I believe it was for a couple reasons: the magnitude of the horror and need to keep "moving on". Also, it brought many of us closer to each other. It was a great school to learn in. Thanks for the opportunity to express myself.


Autumn Rose Kraft


I 1st must state I had remembered wrong, and that is obvious from your posted pictures. I do have some memory issues sometimes from an accident in 1996. I spoke with my mother, who told me that the trees that our school/students planted was at Cheektowaga Park. I was rather young. I have confirmed that there will be an assembly this year for the 60 remembering of the tragedy. My son told me he was the only student that was in the room he was in at the time that was aware of this fire. There will be assembly held on the 60 anniversary of the fire.

Autumn Rose Kraft

Thank you for your account of the Cleveland Hill 1954 fire. I was a student of Cleveland Hill in 1984. I remember planting trees on the 30 year anniversary of the fire. My son now attends Cleveland Hill, (A third generation student). I think my aunt may have been in Kindergarten or 1st grade at the time of the fire. She was the oldest child of my father's siblings. I am curious were the trees moved during the update and expansions to Cleveland Hill in recent years? If I recall, the trees were planted near where the football field is now. I was only in 1st or 2nd grade at the time of the planting, but I do remember photographically in my mind most of the occasion. I remember it really upset me hearing of the accounts of the fire as a child. As upsetting as it was, I hate that these accounts are no longer passionately shared with the young children at Cleveland Hill. My son is 12 and is in 7th grade. He has only gone to Cleveland Hill, and only knows of the fire because of what I have told him. I also remember a fire at Cleveland Hill in 1984 or 1985. I remember standing with my class behind the school far back in the yard thinking of the children who died in the 1954 fire so worried it was happening again. My mom, who at the time was a stay at home mom and we lived at 3613 Harlem Road, ran to the school and found me in the back yard.

I remember crying worrying that I was going to hear of children dying in that fire. Thank God no children were hurt in the fire. Tonight at the PTSA meeting when the music teacher stood up to talk about something I wondered in my head if he knows the history of the music room fire. I guess children are more sheltered from these sad stories now. Two years ago when my son was bring in his 5th grade project, (a cake decorated to look like a state in the USA) there were teachers and students lined up outside. School had yet to start, but someone had set off the fire alarm.
I remember children were lined up next to the building. I got very mad and insisted the teachers move the children away from the building. I later addressed the Principle that teachers need to be instructed to bring the children away from the building. God forbid it was a real fire and the walls collapsed out on the children standing there. Being the grand daughter of a Buffalo Fireman I think instinct took over. Thank you for your letter. I would like to know if our trees are still some where. I saw a picture of trees that was in your article, but I do not think that those are the same trees. I may be wrong.


Mark Glasser

My name is Mark Glasser and I was in the 1st grade when the fire started. Mrs. Burgasser was my teacher. I don't remember much, but what I remember I remember vividly. My class was eating lunch in the cafeteria. We were having hamburgers that day without buns. I was sitting on the end seat facing the opening to the stairs that went up to the front doors. Keep in mind that this is how I remember it after 60 years. I turned around and saw smoke coming into the cafeteria from the rear. I wasn't able to put together what was happening at the time. We were ushered out to the high school auditorium next door. Once seated we all realized there was a fire but that's about it. We saw the principal walk across the stage holding a cloth against his face. Sometime after that I wound up on a school bus in front of the school. I saw my father outside looking for me. I called him and had to fight my way off the bus as people were blocking the aisle. That's about all I remember from that day. I was too young then to grasp the intensity of the tragedy. I did buy a copy of the Life magazine from that day a few years ago. One of the people who commented was named Swift. I believe she said she was in the 6th grade. One of my best friends then was a Ray Swift. I don't remember if he had an older sister. But I'd like to find him if it is he. I would like to know if this is received.

Will Hoctor, some thoughts on “An Aftermath of the fire”

About a few years ago, my wife, Nardie, and I were in Florida for the motorcycle races in Daytona. Nardie was on her high school reunion committee and wanted to reconnect with one of her old classmates from Lancaster High School. We met at a waterfront restaurant, Boondocks, that we like in Port Orange. As we gabbed and ate, part of the conversation drifted to the next table. This older gentleman asked if I had said I went to Cleveland Hill. I had been asked where I went to school and he picked it up when I answered. Then he told his story.

He was a psychiatrist by trade. He had been hired after the fire to help those kids traumatized by the fire. I asked how he knew who to talk with. He said the faculty suggested which students who were having trouble. I asked if they realized there were those who were so traumatized they never returned to Cleve Hill. They went to parochial schools, they went to trade schools, but they never went through the doors of Cleve Hill again. He said they heard that existed, but didn’t know who or how to deal with it. (Duh? Just check off the rolls.) Was he aware there were those who cried themselves to sleep every night for months, but showed no outward sign of this in school? He also heard that, but there was no way to tell who they were either.

So, I guess they tried. If you showed no outward signs in class, you must be OK, so you never knew that psychiatric service was there. Now days, after a traumatic event like that, everybody would be at least interviewed. So if you weren’t affected by the event, they could traumatize you by sending you to a shrink.

The psychiatrist said he realized after a while, they were doing an incomplete job. I have no doubt if that event had happened before WWII, there never would have been a psychiatrist involved. And if that happened today, everybody, including the faculty and cleaning crew, would be subject to psychiatric care. There is no easy solution.

Do you realize that the fire changed schools across the country? Frame schoolhouses became taboo and were closed as soon as possible and either replaced with stone/brick or the kids were bused to a non-frame building.

Barbara (Swift) Leeds

I was in the sixth grade at the time and my class had just been in the annex for a class. Could not believe it when the fire alarm went off since school had just been closed for snow and it was so cold out. I at least was able to grab my coat from the closet in the back of my classroom and when we went out into the hallway, we knew it was not a drill. It was real. We were then marched over to the auditorium in the high school. Very scary for kids our age.

Then in 1959 we were living in the Kensington Village apartments when our apartment burned down. Fortunately we were away for the weekend due to celebrating my 16th birthday. The fire supposedly was set under our apartment.

We then moved back to Fresno CA where I have lived since. We had lived in Fresno for three years from age five to eight.

I have been deathly afraid of fire ever since the school fire.

You wrote an interesting article and was interested in seeing the part about Jackson Frank as I remember my brother being friends with him.

My name when I was at Cleveland Hill was Barbara Swif


Patricia Bressler-Ames

I remember Mrs. Siebold and I seem to remember her husband too....I believe she wrote the school song....I also remember the day of the fire.....I was a Jr. and was in the high school upper gym at the time.....Have spent many years trying to forget that day.....

Patricia Emslie

Very upsetting and so worth reading. I was born in 1959, but my father worked as a pharmacist at Bert Lies' Pharmacy. I remember my mother being so empathetic toward any mention of the tragic fire. Elizabeth Lies was one who perished as her parents both gave of themselves to help anyone they could.


Werner Straub

You have done all CH alum a great service with your research and article on the CH annex fire. I was not aware of the "Memoirs" site and was fascinated by it. I remember visiting Gene Prawel, our old neighbor across the street, in his nursing home on one of my visits back to Cheektowaga. He was a volunteer fireman and one of the first respondents to the CH fire. I gave him a copy of your article and he was overjoyed to have such a complete account of that day. He was also deeply saddened by his memories as he pulled out a few photos he had kept for himself. We spent some time talking about that day which neither of us would ever forget.

I, like you, was in the cafeteria just coming off the line and finding a seat. I heard the explosion and saw the smoke and thought that something in the kitchen had exploded! After we were ushered outside, my thoughts eventually turned to my next class (music, I think) scheduled in the annex! It was a mixed feeling standing for a group photo by the fire memorial on our recent 50th graduation anniversary, looking out onto the empty space where the old wooden annex had stood.


David Goddard

My name is Dave Goddard, CHHS class of 1974. I just want to say what a remarkable job you did on the 1954 school fire. The article was well researched and well written - it brought tears to my eyes. I remember in school we had the most serious fire drills one could possibly imagine, but the 54 fire was rarely talked about. A few years back I saw the movie Mary May Martha Marlene, which featured the songs of Jackson Frank. As I am a a singer and songwriter myself, I took a great interest in Jackson's story. I found myself searching websites for stories about the fire, and there was your article. Your writing inspired me to go back and take a look at the grounds where the annex stood. It was very eerie standing there in that parking lot and feeling haunted by the tragedy of that long ago day. I closed my eyes and I could almost hear the cries and screams. While I was there I talked to a couple of kids who attend Cleve Hill now. I asked them if they had ever heard of the fire. They said "Sure, we had a big assembly about it a few years back. " Later I went over to town park and paid my respects at the memorial trees which had been planted in the kids' memory. Anyways, I just wanted to let you know what a great job you did and that you definitely reached me with your re-telling.

Geoffrey H. Dyce

Ed, you have done an excellent job with the memorial site for the Cleveland Hill School fire of 1954. After all these years, reading the tributes and descriptions of that day have really brought tears to my eyes. I was in Mrs. Gunning’s third grade class in what I thought was called the new wing at that time. I remember someone yelling about smoke coming from the annex and, I think, Mrs. Gunning on the phone talking with someone about the smoke. I can remember the alarms going off like it was yesterday and Mrs. Gunning leading us single file out the end of the building, walking behind the new wing to the high school and with a calmness about her that is coming back as I write this. We were lucky as I am almost certain our room was the closest to the first floor exit and were spared seeing what was going on. The horror of what those little kids saw and went through is just beyond my comprehension. As some others have written, we never really talked about the events of that day from what I can remember. I don’t know why that was. Perhaps the fact that we were third graders and couldn’t really understand those events had something to do with that. With age, we try to remember and sometimes, time is a good thing. My mom kept all the articles written about that fire. I have the Courier Express and I believe what may be Life Magazine describing those events. Every now and then, I pull out that paper, look at the pictures and read the articles and say a prayer for those kids. The pictures are haunting. For some reason, in my 20’s, I got into the fire protection industry. Kind of a strange career choice at that time but perhaps those events had something to do with it. Having been in this business for over 45 years, today I look at that fire and just cannot understand why it had to happen. Even the almost non-existent technology of those days should have prevented that disaster. 59 years is a long time, but reading about the pre-fire conditions regarding the boiler condition should have set some sort of maintenance in motion. It wasn’t and we will never know why. In 1954, fire sprinkler systems were installed in many buildings but evidently, schools were not that important. I would also venture the guess that you can probably walk into many WNY schools today, and not see a fire sprinkler system. I have lived in Florida for 14 years and almost every school here has a fire protection system. A fact which can be verified by the National Fire Protection Association is that there has never been a loss of life in a fully protected building with a properly functioning sprinkler system. If your children or grandchildren attend a school without a sprinkler system, ask the superintendent or principle why? If they can’t answer, ask the local fire marshal. No one should ever die in a fire or feel the horror those kids felt. God bless those little kids and teachers. They will always remain heroes.

Judy Galganski

This is Judy Halter Galganski and in March, 1954, I was in Mrs. Gunning's third grade class and in the new, brick, school building on the first floor. I was one of the lucky ones. The annex could be seen from our classroom windows. What I clearly remember, as if it were yesterday, is Tom Szarus screaming - "look, it's a fire" - I really didn't see anything but remembered we were all ushered into the hallway and out the nearest exit, right outside our classroom, without coats or boots, into the deep snow in the dead of winter. There was no time to go to our lockers.

The next memory was that of the high school auditorium, watching a performance of some kind on stage.

My dad worked at American Optical on Sugar Road off Pine Ridge Road and later told me he could see a huge black cloud of smoke in the sky from his workplace. I think they heard the fire reports on the radio so my dad and his friend, George Sitterle (Kathy Sitterle's dad), rushed over to the school to see if they could find their daughters. The firefighters told them everything was under control and that they could not get any closer.

My last memory of that fateful day was of my Grandpa holding my hand; he was visiting our house, saw the fire reports on TV and rushed to the school on foot from my house on Aurora Drive. My grandpa found me and I still remember him holding my hand and walking me home.


Jim Abbott

My name is Jim Abbott, and Jackson C. Frank was my friend during the last 7 years of his life. He talked often about the fire, with extreme bitterness, which was due, I'm sure, to hindsight being 20/20 about the lack of regulation that allowed the tragic events to happen. I am in the final stages of a book about him, and an important part of the book will be the chapter about the fire, and its aftermath. I would very much like to hear from any of you who knew Jackson as a boy, and afterwards. His mother passed away 5 years ago and his stepfather is suffering from dementia. They shared some wonderful memories and photos of Jackson as a little boy. If any of you have any thoughts or memories of Jackson Frank to share, I’d be very appreciative. Two more things: there is a video featuring one of Jackson's songs, called "Dialogue" ...it was not made by Jackson--that shows a man walking in slow motion while on fire. Im not sure if Jackson would have liked it or not, but it is haunting, to say the least. The other song I'd like to mention is called "Marlene" and is directly about a girl who perished in the fire, Marlene Dupont, who was his little girlfriend at the time. He suffered from the worst case of survivor's guilt, and it comes out in the song. The line, "Though the fire it burned her life out, and left me little more...I am a crippled singer, and it evens up the score..." is as powerful as any line in music. Another line in the song reads, Do me a favor God..won’t you let Marlene come in?" If anyone would like to get in touch, my email is jimbob12404@yahoo.com and my phone is 404-938-3080. Thank you.

James Alan Root


Thank you so very much for your work on this very important story. I was five and a half years old at the time of the fire, in Mrs. Engles kinder garden class. I was in the morning session, and so I was playing outside near my driveway at 2 Manlon Drive, near the intersection of Lamarck and Cleveland Drives. We were to go back to school the following day.

School had been closed for the days leading up to the fire, and so I was playing in the snow and slush when my Dad came home unexpectedly and wheeled into our drive. I remember the look on his face as he got out of his car, and looked around the yard for me. When Dad saw me it seemed as though he let out a breath, and I saw his face change to one of relief. I remember him pushing his hat back on his head, as he walked into the house. Dad could have called my Mom on the telephone to ask where I was, but for some reason drove home instead. That was Dad.

Before Dad came home I remember on that day I could see a great cinder colored column of smoke that billowed into a late winter Buffalo sky, that was already thick with clouds. I had no idea what it was. So I continued to play in the slush and snow, diverting and damming the water and slush as it work its way to the sewer drain down the street.

Early on, the explanation given for the fire was that in returning the school to active use(after some snow days), the janitor, Mr. Shock, had overheated the school's boiler and it had exploded. I have no idea if there was any factual basis to this, but I note the omission of his name in your account. I do not point this out as a matter of assigning blame. but to simply say what was the understanding at the time. Regardless, my heart goes out to him and the others who had to live with the memories of that day for the rest of their lives.

Which brings me to another thought, and that is that in my recollection of the time at CHHS we rarely talked about the fire. Brian Lies, who lost his sister Elizabeth in the fire, was a good friend and classmate. Brian and I talked about it once, and his pain and loss were unforgettable. But Brian did not wear that loss on his sleeve, nor did any others I knew. I had friends, with names like Brand, Miller,Frank and Cervi. Harry Poss, who may have been Blaine Poss' brother was in my class for a time. Harry was a hellion back then, often in fights, bullying other kids and in all sorts of trouble. I hope things smoothed out for him as he grew older. Al Mirand was my football coach, and I used to walk home with Mr. Stumph because we lived on the same street about 6 houses apart. I could go on and on, with connections to your story, but I note that I swam in the fire's aftermath, as did all my classmates. And I tell you, no one talked about it.

I thank you, and congratulate you on presenting a forum where many folks could recall this tragic event, and help them put it into the proper place in their book of memories. You have done a fine thing. I made a lot of connections with the stories I have read, and like many others, put that memory in a better place.

My best to you and yours

Sally Dentinger New!

Wow! Thanks for such a well-written and informational article regarding the Cleveland Hill fire. Pat Noel and I were best friends at the time, but my family had just moved to Orchard Park, NY. If we hadn't moved, I am sure I would have been in that classroom.

Pat suffered multiple burns over her body, but when she went through the window, she caught her thigh on the glass before she landed on the ground. I can't remember how many stitches she had to close the wound, but it had to be hundreds.

She was in the hospital for months also, but it was so long ago I really can't remember most of the details. When she graduated from High School, she went to Hawaii with the money she had received as a result of the fire. The day before she was to come home, she called her mother and said she was staying one more day. The same day she called, she dove into shallow water and hit her head on a sandbar. Some people she was with found her and took her to the hospital. She had broken her neck and from that day forward she was a paraplegic (could not feel anything from her neck down). She had a wonderful outlook on life - even took a trip with her parents back to the scene of the accident. She passed away at age 50 because her organs began shutting down.


Elaine Walther


I was 15 years old at the time of the fire and in the high school when it happened. My sister Susan was 11 and in the tunnel, on her way into the wooden annex. I remember all of us having to leave our classrooms and sit against the walls, not knowing what had happened. I sat and watched parents combing those hallways, looking for their children. My father was at home. We lived at 232 Mapleview Dr., only a minutes walk to the rear of that annex. My dad grabbed his camera and ran over and took pictures. He had no idea that there were children in that rickety old building. When he found out he destroyed those pictures. He never got over standing there with his camera while kids were dying inside. Suzie Jors was my sister's best friend. She lived around the block from our house. Several years later she named her daughter Suzanne Elizabeth after her. The Jors had one child left, a daughter named Christine. I remember that Mrs. Jors dark brown hair turned white almost overnight. They sold their house and moved away just a few months after their daughter died. It's been almost 60 years for me and every detail of that day and the days that followed are as sharp and frightening today as the that day in 1954.

Jane (Mueller) Grant

Good article on the fire. I have wondered for the past several years how that fire affected the community and school in broader sociological, spiritual, and relationship matters. It would make an interesting book, or at least a monograph. Unfortunately many of the prime people who could resource that research are deceased (like our parents and teachers). My third grade teacher (Ms Brant) said, "CH was never the same after the fire." She said that in the mid 1990s when she was visiting her sister and brother-in-law (Bob Doran, Jack's brother) in Rochester. I've often wondered about her observation.

Richard Hoff

Several years ago I somehow found your web site and saw the article you wrote in 2006 on the school fire of 1954. I read it with interest as I was one of the students in the fire and it brought back all the horror of that event. I was lucky because when the explosion occurred I ran to the window to try and get out. The windows were very difficult to break and it was only because of all the students pushing behind me that the window frame broke and I fell out. The other students fell on top of me so I only suffered a broken arm. I thought you did an outstanding job bringing the various aspects of the fire together. It’s interesting that after almost 60 years reading your article brings the memories and the terror back as vividly as if it were yesterday. The horror will live with me forever.

David Wright

I was looking through some old LIFE magazines and happened upon an article in the April 16, 1954 issue about the school fire at Cleveland Hill and was absolutely mesmerized by it, and that led me to running more searches which, in turn, introduced me to your site. I cannot stop reading the various accounts and feel very connected to all of these individuals not only because of the horrific ordeal they all experienced to varying degrees but also because my mother was there that day.

She grew up in a house on Leroy Road, just a few blocks from the school. Sounds like she was a couple years ahead of you – I am not positive, but I think she was Class of ’60. Her name then was Jo Ann Draexlmaier and she and her younger sister, Judy, both attended Cleveland Hill through graduation. I’ll have to check, but I think she was in 6th grade at the time of the fire.

I grew up in the Syracuse area but we often went to visit her parents there in Cheektowaga. I clearly remember getting off the thruway, heading up Harlem, turning left on Aurora and then right on Leroy; obviously, we passed the school every time we made the trek. I remember hearing a little about the fire and that she had lost some friends to the tragedy, but she never really talked much about it. I don’t know if that’s because I never asked or because, like many other contributors to your effort, she prefers not to remember. I don’t recall her ever avoiding talk about the school or the incident so I plan to ask her about that day and see how it goes. Should I get some interesting information from her, I will certainly pass it on to you.

I do have some questions that I’d love to ask her. I think that she may have been running an errand for a teacher at the time and was in a hallway delivering a message or something, but I’d like to verify. If she is okay with talking about it, I’d like to find out if she was close with any of the victims, who her teacher was at the time, if she spent time in that annex, etc. Also, her father was a volunteer firefighter; I wonder if he was there or if he wound up joining the fire department as a result of the fire.

Anyway, I will pass along any insight from discussions with her. I will see if she knows your name - do you have any recollection of her, by chance? I appreciate your efforts to bring people together and to honor the heroes and victims of that dark day.


Joel Pfeil

Thank you for the memorial site to the children that perished in the March 1954 school fire. It brought back the vivid memories of that day, that (at the age of 68) I thought had finally been erased.

I was a 5th grade student at the time, and was in the brick building on the right hand side of the first picture in the story. I was on the 2nd floor, on the street side of the building. When the fire alarm went off, we assumed it to be a fire drill, but were confused because it was still March, and very cold outside. The teacher opened the door, and immediately told all the students to prepare to exit the building. She had seen what none of us saw, until we went through the door and into the hall. Black smoke was rolling (very fast) down the ceiling of the hallway toward us. Naturally, a bit of panic ensued as we crowded to get down the stairs and out the exit door (which, in the picture would be at the bottom right hand side of the picture). As we came out of the exit, there were two badly burned children rolling in the snow in front of us. We turned toward the street as the fire truck pulled up, and there was an adult female (teacher perhaps) that we passed who held a terribly burned child in her arms and was making her way to the fire truck. Several of my classmates were being pushed along as they vomited at the horrific sight they had just experienced. We followed the sidewalk down to the high school end of the building, and were seated in the auditorium. Teachers were making headcounts after headcounts to make sure that everybody was accounted for. My vivid memory of that day was our minister, Rev Smith, going from row to row in the auditorium comforting children, and promising them that they were safe. I have to believe that as he was comforting all of us, he knew that he had lost his daughter, Reba.

My sister was in 6th grade, and both she and I had been in the annex on numerous occasions – she for violin lessons and I for trumpet lessons. I believe that both of us were due to be in the annex at some time during that fateful day. After being released from the auditorium (without my jacket), I found my sister and we walked home together, stopping at the Southside Elementary school where my mother worked in the school cafeteria. I was sure I was in a lot of trouble, because I had lost my jacket. When we walked in the door, she screamed and cried, and hugged us like I’d never been hugged before. The subject of the jacket never came up. I think my parents kept all of the press releases from my sister and I to ease the trauma we had experienced. I don’t believe that I knew any of the children lost on that tragic day, but my sister lost her best friend, Verna Bagley.

David Martin


My memories of this terrible fire: I was in fourth grade in the Cleveland Hill elementary school. That day of the fire our class's music class got cancelled that morning-it was to meet in the wooden annex. Little did I know that I was spared from that horrible fire because of that cancellation. My class was on its way to the cafeteria when "all hell broke loose." We were in the tunnel that was connected to two parts of the school and the annex. Half of my class went through the horrible smoke and the other half (my group) turned around barely avoiding this smoke. We escaped out one of the exit doors. The rest is a blur. I knew many of the students who died in the fire-especially Reba Smith. I did attend many years ago the ceremony that reflected on this terrible tragedy. It was amazing to see Mrs. Seibold again. Throughout the years as a teacher and principal I always stressed fire drills very much. I always shared the story of the Cleveland Hill fire. It always brought tears to my eyes. Thanks, Ed, for allowing us to share our memories of that tragic event. Remember the "Toad" still lives. Editor’s note: Dave and I were goombas at Cleveland Hill High. I called him “Toad,” he called me “Frog.” In class I would start it: “Hey Toad! Yeah Frog. Ribet, tibet, ribet.” Kids!

Gary R. Owen


Thank you, Ed, for this website. My younger sister, who was born in October, 1954, was recently asking me about the fire. Our conversation resulted in a sleepless night so I went on line to see what information there might be. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw your name. I remember you from high school but was surprised to learn that we were in grade 4 together and astonished to discover that we were probably only feet apart at the time of the explosion.
My memories of that day are few but vivid, like small film clips without sound.

I had left the food line in the cafeteria and was walking toward a table. Something (probably the explosion) made me look back toward the line in time to see my friend flying through the air. Until I read your memoir I could remember only that his name was “John” and that his brother had died in the fire. He was, of course, Jonathan Hause and to this day I can remember the house where he lived. I started to move toward him but was restrained by a teacher. Two others were picking him up. We were told to move up a stairway that led to the main building. Part way up we were confronted with black smoke from the fire and instructed to return to the cafeteria below then across it to an exit that led outside.

While crossing the driveway between the cafeteria and the high school I saw Mr. Lies in his white smock. He had come from his pharmacy to assist. I often wonder whether he knew then that his daughter had not escaped the fire.

We were ushered into the high school auditorium where I tried to look about to see if my younger sister Cheryl was there. She had not been in the annex but in one of the brick buildings. I remember people playing music and I remember going on stage to look for my coat in the pile there. I thought that I saw my sister’s coat but don’t remember whether I found my own.

A bus must have taken us home but I only recall Cheryl and I walking down our street through quite a bit of snow with no boots. Coats? No idea.

My worst memory of all is of the days after we returned to classes. I was in a room on the second or third floor and could see the remnants of the annex and the investigators poking through the rubble.

Our parents had enrolled us in a Lutheran school for the next school year so in September of 1954 my sister and I were separated from our classmates until we returned to Cleveland Hill High in 1958.

Discussing the fire years later, my mother told us that we had been coming home with headaches prior to the fire probably from the gas leaks.

While I never forgot the fire or the memories of that day, over time the date had faded from my consciousness. A few years ago I began to become moody and depressed at some point every March. As the month progressed the mood became darker until, once April arrived, it would disappear. I had no idea what was causing this until I mentioned it to my sister Cheryl in a phone conversation and she reminded me of the date of the fire. On a subsequent visit to Cheektowaga, we went to Town Park to see the trees and memorial marker. I counted 13 trees and concluded that 13 students had died in the fire. Thank you for correcting that misperception and thanks again for your excellent website.


Kathie (Bork) Gerber

I just received a notice from my mom, who still lives in Buffalo, that Mrs. Siebold passed away. For those who went to Cleveland Hill North Elementary, she was our music teacher. I'm certain those who live in Buffalo have probably read the article and I'm reporting old news...but I thought I'd pass it along regardless. Her obituary tells that she was certainly one of the heroines of that day. Bless you for all your work gathering information. It's amazing.

Ron Mesner

She (Mrs. Siebold) was a true hero and the salesman who helped her throw the kids out the window. The 4th grade class I was in was on the second floor of the new building, we could see the smoke coming from the old wooden annex. We got our coats on and went over to the high school What a tragic scene it was, 15 - 6th graders died.

Beverly Schenauer Schneider


I went to the memorial service the school had and a monument was placed where the school was and Mrs. Seibold sang a song she wrote. It was very hard for her to sing, but she did it, There wasn't a dry eye in the overfilled aud. It was awesome to see all the people there..They had a coffee hour after and she tried talking to everyone. She tried talking to everyone. I did go to see her when she was in Greenfield as my mother and her were friends. May she rest in peace.

Editor’s note: I regret to inform that Mrs. Melba Siebold died on August 18, 2010 at St. Joseph Campus of Sisters Hospital, Cheektowaga, New York. She was 95. The Buffalo News said this about her with regard to the fire:

“Mrs. Seibold, a student teacher and students used their hands, chairs and books to break windows, and she desperately pushed children through the window. Not knowing that firefighters were on the way, she decided the only way to help the rest of the children was to run to the office for help.

“She broke her back falling out the window and also suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation. Mrs. Seibold talked of that day with
The Buffalo News in 2004, the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

“‘I often wonder,’ she said, ‘do people think I should have done more on the occasion to have been able to save more people?’

“She was hospitalized for three months, and had eight surgeries. The fire also damaged her voice and left her with scars on her arms. She credited her faith with sustaining her through her painful rehabilitation.”

God bless you Mrs. Siebold. You most certainly were a blessing to us.

Patricia Anna Severance

I will never forget the day of the fire as long as I live.  I was 7 yrs old, in Mrs. Lies 2nd grade class. She was such a lovely lady.  She lost her daughter, Elizabeth in the fire.  We were coming out of gym class from the new building and turning right into the tunnel to return to our classroom.  A dense cloud of black smoke from the floor to the ceiling was rushing down the tunnel very fast.  I guess our guardian angels were with us because there was an emergency exit door from the end of the tunnel where we were. I will never forget the sickening smell of the smoke.

We ran out into the snow in front of the parking lot between the tunnel and the high school.  A teacher was waiting for us with the door to the woodshop open.  After that I only remember being taken to the high school cafeteria.  We were given vegetable soup to eat, all the while looking out the cafeteria windows and seeing the flames and the smoke. I don’t remember going to the auditorium like the others mentioned. 

My brother, David, was in the 6th grade.  His classroom was on the 3rd floor of the main building.  All he remembers is the fire bell ringing, going into the hall, where the thick black smoke was already invading the floor.  He doesn’t remember who his teacher was. 

Judy Marchase lived down the street from us.  She played baseball with my brother.  She was badly burned in the fire.  My brother had known many of the children who were burned.  No one in my family could eat dinner that night we all were so very upset.  All night we watched reports on the TV about the fire.  As many of the other students mentioned, I never remember talking about the fire or my feelings with my parents. They didn’t want to talk about it, like it never happened.  After school resumed, I remembered lying across the kitchen chair each morning telling my mother how sick my tummy felt.  Unfortunately, back then we didn’t have professional counselors to help us cope with this horrific tragedy.  We only had our parents to hold us, wipe our tears, and tell us “Everything will be OK”. 

I don’t think about the fire very often.  Most likely, I have pushed those horrible memories to the back of my mind.  My heart breaks for the children who lost their lives. Also, for the ones who survived, some having to live with physical as well as emotional scars. 

I have such great respect & admiration for firefighters.  My oldest son, Mark, who is 41 now has been a City of Cincinnati firefighter for 11 years.  I worry so much about him having chosen this dangerous yet rewarding career.

Thank you Ed for this website.  There are so many people out there who never knew the trauma that the survivors have experienced

Linda (Orcutt) Arthur

I moved to Cheektowaga shortly after the fire and attended Cleveland Hill Elementary School (which I believe is now the March of Dimes Building)on Cedar Grove Circle. I knew the Poss family and the Smith family. We all knew someone killed in the fire in some way or their families. It touched all of us.

Many times through the years fire drills and learning how to use fire extinguishers were a major issue, appropriately so. Mr. Griffin showed us how, right where the annex burned(when I was in 7th grade). Mr. Griffin was also my 6th grade teacher. John Doran was also my principal in my high school years.

Originally fruit trees were planted in Cheektowaga Town Park for each student along the left side of the park, which would be right behind the stage area in the park. A few years back they were taken out, I don't know why, but people prayed by these trees.The trees were near the wading pool that also used to be there.The trees were always so pretty in the spring with blossoms, which was right around the time of the fire to begin with, so I don't know why the town ripped them out, They were beautiful.

All the years I attended Cleve Hill until 1967 when we moved the fire was never forgotten. Thank you for the story.

I am glad that put up another memorial.

John Brenner

I am sorry to report that Judith Marchese Storms passed away on April 10, 2010 in Buffalo, NY after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, she was 67. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Marchese and Storms families.

Editor's note: Judith is married to Jerry Storm, and left three children, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The family has asked that any donations in her honor be made to Hospice-Buffalo, Inc. (041010)

Mary Ellen Truckenport Martin

I was a 4th grade student at Cleveland Hill on March 31, 1954. My name is Mary Ellen Truckenport (now Martin). I was in Mrs. Nichols class, we were in our classroom, just across from the annex. I remember, smoke coming out of the windows of the annex and seeing the fire in what I thought at the time was the cafeteria. We did not line up, we just left our classroom went down the back stairs and outside. I remember going to the high school and waiting in the hall there. I saw Jonathon Hause and I saw Mrs. Lies. The Lies were our neighbors, Elizabeth and I played together. My mom was an assistant Girl Scout leader and many of the girls who died were in her troop. Thank you for telling the story of the fire. My mom never let me see papers about it. I remember when we went back to school after the fire, I was scared to walk in the tunnel, may mom accompanied me the first day. Each March 31 I remember that day as I am sure everyone who was there does too. Thank you for keeping the victims memory alive.

John Brenner

I have read your notes regarding the tragedy at Cleveland Hill. My sister-in–law, Judith Marchese-Storms has worn the scars of that day all her life. It led her to a life of service and dedication in the nursing profession. While deemed legally blind, she completed her masters in nursing, raised 3 children, and still cared for the terminally ill. I believe her experiences of that tragic day and the treatment she received set her forward to do the same for others and she did so. That’s all for now. Thanks.
John Brenner

Sue Avery

I was in 4th grade at Maryvale Elementary that day. I remember hearing (feeling?) the explosion and seeing the smoke. My mom and dad heard about it (on the radio, I guess) and there was some confusion about which school was burning. We lived on "Little Union Road" near Cleveland Drive. My mom had no transportation and was at home hysterical. My dad was driving a truck for a commercial laundry and he left his route and drove to Maryvale elememtary, so relieved to see the school intact. I have 5 cousins who lived in Cheektowaga and all attended Cleveland Hill schools, but I believe the oldest was too young to be in school at that time. A while after the fire, I was hospitalized at Sister's hospital with a blood infection from a brush burn on my knee. In the bed next to me was Nancy Love who was burned in the fire. If I remember correctly, she was well on her way to recovery and we used to race in our wheelchairs up and down the hall. I remember she had bandages, but don't remember where or how many. I have often thought of her through the years.

Brian Rogers

I read your story. I talked to my sister, Janet Dinki, today about the fire. To this day she will not have any candles in the house or other open flame. The girl two door down was Marlene Miller, who may have been the one alluded to in the Jackson Franks song. My sister was scheduled to be in that classroom the next day. The neighbor two doors down on Briarcliffe Rd. lost their daughter, and moved away soon after. My mother always said it was because Janet reminded them of their loss. This was all before I was born, but it is still remembered.

Nancy McKee Dodge

I will never forget the day of that fire ever. We had our music lessons etc. in that annex building. They let us wear pants because it was so cold in there. All the windows were shut so they couldn't open and to help keep the cold air out. Was in a music class when we saw the smoke in the hallway, that blocked our way out. The teacher broke windows with the chairs etc. and we climbed out into the snow. We were taken to the auditorium in the high school. They talked to us and told us what was going on. After a long time we were let out of the school. A lot of us didn't have coats or jackets to wear, they were lost in the fire. I left to go home and amongst all the confussion and all the people that flocked to the school to watch or get their children were all over the place. I just knew I was cold and wanted to go home. My mom found me about 2 streets away on my way home freezing cold. Was the best sight I ever saw my mom coming to get me. Well that is my memory of the fire. I still hear screams when I think about it and all the sirens and people yelling and crying, and the aftermath the death of students and the very badly burned and hurt people and friends, especially the friends

Kathy Foulon Chenoweth

I'm Kathy Foulon (CHHS class of 1962) Chenoweth, and for the past 47 years I have been living in New Mexico. When I came upon your article Ed remembering the fire, I was taken back to that horrible day. Although I did not attend Cleveland Hill Elementary School, we lived on S. Huxley just a few blocks away. The whole neighborhood was outside just waiting. I remember when kids that did attend the school finally arrived home, the relief we all felt was overwhelming. Many of the people that sent memoirs in, I knew personally (Bonnie Fosmer, Linda Schulz, Craig Schwab, Dale Knobloch) either from school or were friends of my sisters.

I thank you for all for never forgetting and for honoring their memories.

Charles Case

I am a local writer and attorney that comes to you with a question about Jackson C. Frank, an eleven year old student at Cleveland who lived through the furnace explosion, suffering severe burns on large parts of his body.

I do not know how much you know of Jackson Frank. While recovering from the fire, he was given a guitar, which he learned to play and began writing songs and researching civil war ballads. He left for England in the 60's, was discovered and Paul Simon produced his first album, which still received some measure of acclaim in Europe over forty years after its release.

He was brilliant, but mental illness, made worse or caused by the trauma of the fire, tormented him and eventually ruined him. He was homeless by the mid-1970s. He was later discovered and brought to Woodstock by admirers and friends in the mid-1990s. While waiting to leave NYC to finally be among people who cared about him, some children playing with a pellet gun shot him in the left eye, causing him to lose sight in it.

He played open mic nights and recorded some brilliant home recordings in his later years, but ultimately died in obscurity.

He is an untold story from Buffalo and I, as an deep admirer of his art, and those few parts of his soul that come through in his voice and words, am wondering why that is so. I am also embarking on project to get to know the man as best I can. I have reached out to the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame to see what they can tell me of this brilliant and beautiful mind.

Any information that you can give me on Jacskon Frank by way of your personal reflections or anyone else who knows of him would be greatly appreciated.

I do hope that I have not troubled you.

Your time and attention is appreciated.

Buffalo, NY
716-982-7271

Becky LaNeve

My name is Becky LaNeve my dad was the salesman in the choir room on that terrible day. My dad passed away in 1998. His name was Robert Winters. He was never able to talk about the fire. Many years ago I found an article on the fire and had questioned my Mom about it. I would someday like to visit the site of the fire and see the memorial.

Joyce Williams Mecca

I commend you for the work you're doing regarding the tragic fire at Cleveland Hill, and I'd like to share my memories from that unforgettable March day. I. too, have been affected my entire life.

I recall our school bus experienced some mechanical problems and pulled off the road. Butch Hoffman was our bus patrol that a.m. He was so kind to us younger children. I was in the third grade; he, unfortunately, was one of the sixth graders who lost his life one week after the fire. It was hard to believe he was comforting us and hours later fighting for his own life.

I was a member of Mrs. Morgan's class. We had concluded our gym class in the old building and were lined up in the hallway waiting to go through the tunnel. Mrs. Morgan was unusually late. As we saw her descending the staircase, ladies from the office came running out telling us to run. We ran out the side door to the building, up the sidewalk to the front of the school where we waited. We were told to jump and down and pat our arms to stay warm. As we were doing this we witnessed children being carried to the house next door. Jimmy Marchese was in my class and saw his sister in someone's arms. I remember Mrs. Morgan picking him up and consoling him. Fortunately, Judy looked worse than she was and was one of the survivors. Shortly thereafteer, we were walked over to the high school where students were performing on the stage.
Afterwards we learned that two of the children in our neighborhood had perished that day - Patty Steeger ( with whom I'd play cards once in awhile ) and Bruce Brand. I know my friend, Pete Heffley lost his cousin, Elizabeth Lies that day, too.

This is how the fire affected me afterward. I couldn't light a match until I had to light my bunsen burner in science class. I'm always conscious of fire exits wherever I go. I've shared the tragic story throughout my life explaining how it changed the building of schools throughout our country. So often it takes a tragedy for necessary changes to be made.

Thank you for what you're doing, Ed. I hope more of us will add to your book of memoirs.

Terry Hillery

My mother is June Mahany, the student teacher referenced in your attached article on the 1954 Cleveland Hill Elementary school fire in Cheektowaga, NY. June married my father, Herbert Hillery, in 1954 and I am the oldest of their 8 children. First, I'd like to thank you for writing this article and soliciting input from people who may have been familiar with this event.


June Muhaney and Herbert Hillery on their wedding day, after the fire.

If you've ever read the book Flags of our Fathers you'll understand what I'm about to say. My parents never spoke about this fire or the role my mother may have played. For that matter, we knew very little about my mother and what shaped her early life until very recently. People who grew up in the 40's and 50's did not seek to draw attention to themselves and they often kept their innermost feelings private. I cannot offer much insight into the Cheetowaga fire because other than your article I know virtually nothing about what happened. What I can share with you is that my mother is a remarkable person. She was born June Russell during the depression and was orphaned at an early age. Her stepfather died of a heart attack before she reached her teenage years and she was raised by Catherine Mahany on Woodside Avenue in South Buffalo, in the same vicinity where Tim Russert also grew up. To the best of my knowledge, she met my father at a young age and they dated throughout high school and college. My father was an excellent athlete, who excelled at baseball and was offered contracts to tryout with two minor league teams. My dad never really told me why he didn't pursue a pro career. He commented that he had a good job offer that enabled him to raise a family and that baseball players didn't make much money in those days in the minor leagues. Like my mother, what he never discussed is the role, if any, the Cheektowaga fire had on his decision making. They married shortly after the fire and eventually purchased a home on Downing Street, which is off Abbott Road in South Buffalo and close to where both of their parents lived. In 1969 my father was transferred and my family moved to Mahopac, NY, a small town approximately 1 hour north of New York City, where they have lived ever since.

My mother continued to teach music for many years. To support 8 children, she would tutor upwards of 25 piano students and it was common to come home from high school to a steady stream of cars bringing children to our house to be taught by my mother. She organized and directed music recitals and ran the choir at our church for years beyond which I cannot count. Only recently, with her health beginning to slip, did she stop playing the piano and singing at our church.

As I write this e-mail and reflect on her life, I begin to realize what drove her to succeed. Catherine Mahany raised my mother to be self sufficient and independent. When I picture a woman who was orphaned, saw her stepfather die and experienced a fire by the age of 20, I often wonder how she coped. I have no doubt in my mind that the fire clearly effected her outlook on life. I am convinced that my mother would have given birth to as many children as were lost in that fire. I also now understand why it was years before my parents ever lit a fire in our house, despite the fact that we had a very nice fireplace in our living room. My mother has constantly driven herself to do as much as possible with her life. She knew she had been orphaned and always struggled to make peace with her biological father. In many respects, I feel she was compelled to prove herself both worthy and better than the circumstances that surrounded her early life.


June Muhaney and Herbert Hillery at their 50th wedding anniversary.

A few years ago I approached my mother and encouraged her to meet her biological father. He had cancer and was close to death and I felt it was important for her to reach out and make peace with her past. My mother is very religious and I remember telling her how important it is to be able to forgive and reconcile. I'm glad they had an opportunity to meet since he died shortly thereafter. About the same time, one of my sisters told me that someone had called our house to inquire about a reunion in Buffalo. My father told me there had been a fire, but said little about it and commented that he and my mother preferred not to go back. I have no doubt in my mind that my mother still mourns the loss of life that occurred that day. Like the parable of the lost sheep, she would focus less on the students she helped save and more on the sheep that were lost. I suspect that is why she did not attend the 50 year reunion in your attached article.

I am writing you this e-mail to share my thoughts about the woman who student taught in that class during that day in 1954. I hope to have the opportunity to either speak or meet with you and learn more about what happened. To respect my parents wishes, I ask that you please keep the above thoughts between us. We are approaching the 55th anniversary of this event. I read in another article that this fire changed the outlook on schools, led to improvements in safety standards and brought to a close an era where schools were constructed primarily of wood. Although I also mourn the loss of life that occurred that day, I celebrate those that survived and the families they have raised. Please let me know the best way to contact you. I hope this e-mail finds you in good health and that we have an opportunity to meet in the future.

Editor's note: I asked Terry to reconsider publishing this and he agreed that I could. Not only that, he provided some photos of June. Little has been written by June Mulhaney --- this is truly a piece of history. God's speed June Mulhaney!

Dale Knobloch

I was in second grade and remember it vividly. We were in the cafeteria at the time. I must have fallen asleep or was day dreaming when all of a sudden the janitor grabbed my arm and ran me up the stairs and out the front door. I looked around and the cafeteria was empty. At the top of the stairs I could see smoke and flames coming from the hall of the new annex. Once outside I saw kids walking around with some of their clothes burned. One that always stuck in my mind was a girl that had her hair and clothes burned and her skin looked blistered and yellow. She appeared to be in shock. We were then walked to the high school auditorium where they gave us back our coats. I'm not sure how we got home.

Karen Kenyon

I, too, was in the fourth grade and have never forgotten the tragedy. I have been writing a book, originally just meant for my family, and when I got to the part about the fire, I went online to make sure my facts were accurate. That's when I discovered your site. Although I have a Masters and Doctorate in psychology, and was in private practice for twenty years, in writing this, I find I still have many unresolved issues about that day. I am still terrified of fire, have many smoke detectors, including one directly connected to an alert center, plus an abundance of fire-extinguishers. If you are still interested, I am willing to share my memories.

Editor's note: Karen provided the text of her chapter on the fire. It is as follows:

"The school I was attending, in Tiorunda, was Cleveland Hill Elementary School. The classes went from kindergarten through fourth-grade. Every year there would be a celebration as the fourth graders graduated. They would move on the next year to the larger Cleveland Hill Elementary School, located a few miles away and adjacent to the high school. The fifth and sixth-grades would be completed there and then students would go next door to the high school. Our school was a long wooden building, that I believe had been thrown together quickly to accommodate the rapid growth in the area. Toward the end of my third-grade year, it was announced that this school would be torn down and rebuilt. It would take about two years for completion and the new school would have grades from kindergarten through sixth grade. The next school year, the fourth through sixth-graders would be bussed to the larger elementary school until the new school was finished. I don't know what the plan was for those in the lower grades. A lot of the kids in the neighborhood went to Mother of Divine Grace Parochial School, located right near our “old school,” so they weren't affected. There must have been a lot of planning and shuffling of classes to make room for all of us that would pour into the other school. The next year would be one that would change a lot of lives, including mine, forever; it would also end fifteen.

"In the fall of 1953, when I was nine-years-old, the change was made. We trooped to the school bus stop, about the same distance from the house as the old school was. There, we would pile onto the bus to ride to our “new” school. We didn't have assigned seats, but everyone would typically find a seat
and use that same one everyday. Usually, one only changed seats when friendships changed. The bus was always buzzing with chatter among the students, but it was an orderly chatter. There was never any yelling, nobody threw things and standing up while riding was not tolerated. I still didn't like school and I didn't like my teacher very much. In these lower grades, we still had to stay in the same classroom all day and the same teacher would cover all subjects. To make matters worse, she knew my brother, Lloyd.

"This elementary school consisted of two brick buildings that housed classrooms, the principal's office, administrative offices, the lunchroom and an auditorium. The two buildings were connected by a tunnel with a few windows. Midway in the tunnel was a doorway that led to a wooden annex that had
been built in the courtyard to accommodate all of the extra students that had arrived because industry was growing in the area and new families were moving in all the time. This annex had a hallway down the center, with four classrooms on either side. At the end of that hallway was an exit door to the rear of
the annex. The music room was in one of those classrooms. We all went there for our music classes and for individual lessons. The lunchroom was located at the end of the tunnel closest to the main entrance and street. The high school was next door, but separated from these buildings.

"March had been a very cold month and we even had a couple of “snow days,” but school must go on. On March 31, 1954, we grudgingly trudged our way through slush and snow to the bus stop. Girls had to wear dresses or skirts to school, so our legs were always cold. We were bundled in winter coats, gloves, scarves and galoshes that would fit over our shoes. As we waited for the bus, we talked about how cold it was and then we boarded the bus, which warmed us up and improved our mood. At school, we all had lockers and we would stop there to store our winter outer-garments. Then, off to class for another day.

"There were staggered lunch periods, to accommodate all of the classes. Each classroom would go to lunch en-mass, accompanied by our teacher to ensure order was maintained. After I ate the lunch I had brought from home, I asked for a hall-pass to go to the little-girls'-room. I left the lunchroom and walked into the tunnel, intending to turn left and go to the building to complete my mission. The time was 11:22 am. As I entered the tunnel area, there was a loud explosion. I froze in place. I looked to my right and was transfixed. The tunnel was filled with a huge ball of black smoke. It just seemed to be
rolling slowly toward me. I could smell it and it seemed it would reach me and just swallow me up. Then alarms began to sound. This got my attention. I had a choice; I could continue left and go out the front doors, or I could go back to the lunchroom and rejoin my class. I didn't want to get in trouble, so I went back to my class. Someone shut the doors to the tunnel. There were still students in there. The door was pried open and the next class filed in.

“There didn't seem to be a lot of panic, just confusion. We waited for our teacher's instructions. I could still smell the smoke, and realized that it was me. I smelled like smoke and couldn't seem to get it out of my nose. We all stood and followed our teachers out another doorway into fresh air. On the sidewalk, I turned and could see flames shooting high into the sky from the chimney and from behind the school. We filed next door to the high school and into the auditorium, still all staying within our own classes. Many high school students were waiting for us as we came through the main door. Some
were crying and they would take our hands and lead us to our destination. We whispered with each other, trying to figure what had happened. When we were all seated, each teacher took attendance, to make sure we were all accounted for.

“We stayed in the auditorium a long time. We could hear many sirens outside and some teachers tried to distract and calm us by getting on the stage and attempting to lead us in songs. One even danced. We tried to sing along, however, it was feeble sounds that came from most of us. After some time had passed, we were told that a lot of our parents were outside waiting and buses were coming to take the rest home. Firemen had gone through all the lockers in the two buildings and gotten the winter outer-wear. They put the garments in big piles outside the auditorium and we dug through to find our own. It all smelled like smoke. When we left the building, there was a large crowd waiting behind roped-off areas. I saw my mother and ran to her. She was crying and hugged me so tightly I could hardly breathe. Then she asked what I had in my hand. I opened my hand and it was the hall pass I had been carrying to go to the little-girls'-room. It was wadded into a ball but I couldn't let go of it. A neighbor was there with Mom to drive us home. Dad had become an auxiliary-police officer and had been called at work to come on duty. He had to stop at home and put on his uniform and get Mom. That's when a neighbor ran over to see if he could help. He followed along and stayed with Mom when Dad dropped her at the school. He had to take up a post, two blocks away, to direct emergency vehicles and keep other traffic from entering the area. The neighbor drove by there so that Dad could see that I was all right. After we got home, other neighbors came by just to check. Many other schools in the area had let out early. The kids at Mother of Divine Grace attended a special mass for all of those at our school. Some of them came by. Everyone was feeling the effects from the news reports. No one knew yet just how bad it had been. Relatives called; even my brothers called. Walter was stationed in Okinawa and Lloyd was in Guam. The news was put out over Armed Forces Radio.

"The newspapers, radio and TV all carried the story and we soon began to hear the horrible details. Ten sixth-grade students had died in the building and twenty-four had been hospitalized, along with four teachers and the principal. Another child died the next day, two the day after that, then another and finally, the last one perished. Fifteen kids had died and at least nineteen others suffered burns and injuries. Many would be in the hospital for months and would carry the physical scars forever. The emotional scars, even for those of us who had not been in that wooden annex, are present to this day. In those days, there were no counselors coming in to help all the children, staff and faculty to cope with the disaster. School was closed for about two weeks and then it was time to return. We gathered at the bus stop, all still discussing the event. When we boarded the bus and took our usual seats, something was wrong. I looked around and saw others doing the same. There were so many empty seats. No one spoke. I'm not sure anyone spoke above a whisper, on the bus, for the rest of the school year. I know that nobody filled those vacant seats.

"Even after almost fifty-five years, I find that while just free-writing this chapter, I have had to stop and take many breaks. I have always had an absurdly good memory, but there are things I have blocked out intentionally. I have never discussed the fire, in detail, and find, in typing this, that the memories are extremely vivid. I realize, it was after the fire, that I became panicked by loud noises, even a balloon popping, and fire terrifies me to this day. When back at school, I changed. I would take books home, but seldom read them. I got by on what I learned in class. I became a behavioral problem in school; talking out and disrupting the class any way I could. I did not want to be there. I wondered why those fifteen kids had to die. Why was I alive? It would be years before I would learn about 'Survivor's Guilt' and 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.' ”

Cheryl Depew Orth

I was there. I was 7 years old and in second grade and was in the cafeteria when the fire started. I remember being told to get in lines and to hold on tight to the hand of the person in front of you and to the hand of the person behind you and no matter what, don't let go.

The smoke was so thick it was pitch black in the hallway from the cafeteria to the main entrance of the school. You could not see anything and you knew you couldn't cover your mouth or nose to protect yourself because that would mean letting go of the hand you were told to hold on to, no matter what.

I remember hearing our wonderful principal's voice telling us to go slow and steady and to hold on tight as we were guided through that terrible thick smoke. He was coughing and having difficulty talking, but I understand he didn't leave until he knew we were all safely out of the cafeteria.

Once outside, I don't remember the cold, even though it was March and there was snow all around.

I only remember children in flames being put into snow banks. It was a vision I thought I had forgotten until I found my 7 year old son playing with matches on his bedroom carpet and in a terrible instant flashed back to that horrible scene as my knees buckled beneath me.

At some point in time, we were directed into the High School Auditorium and I remember Mr. Baisley, of Baisley Taxi coming down the aisle, desperately looking for his daughter. She was ok. After awhile, the firemen brought in arm loads of coats and jackets from our classroom locker rooms and called
each class to come up and get their coats/jackets. I remember seeing my red coat in the pile, it stood out so vivid amongst the others.

I never realized it, until recently, but I never owned another piece of red clothing.

I remember Mr. Griffin. He came over to the new Cleveland Hill South Elementary School after the old wooden building that was there was torn down after the fire and the new school was built. I was at the south school for fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Gloria Avner

I was in the sixth grade along with your friend, but not in the wooden annex that day, that hour. The weather was so cold and miserable. The day before the fire, the school was closed because of a huge snowstorm.

Only half of our 6th grade class was in the annex that day for music.The rest of us were reading in our room on the third floor of the brick building. If it had been another day,we would have been in the annex and they would have been safe, reading.

I am happy that you remember your neighbor friend. I remember her as well. She had been at my birthday party the previous November. But something is troubling me. The name I remember best, the friend I mourned the longest, Judith Marchese, is not listed in the article. I have not found it anywhere. She was very bright, yet quiet and shy. She would have been a judge I think, a champion of the defenseless,
had she lived into maturity.

If you have any contacts still in Buffalo and think you can get someone to help research this puzzlement, I would be very appreciative of the help. Bless you.

I believe I am the girl in the first row, sitting on the far right hand side. (
Editor's note: My information is that the girl to whom she refers is Judith Marchese - Gloria replied saying this: Thank you so much for keeping me up to date on this. I have had some personal sadness lately and to receive your note at this time helps put many things in perspective for me. How odd that the one person I thought was me in that class picture turns out to be the friend I lost in the fire who is not listed among the dead. Please help get this rectified. Judy Marchese's name should be on the memorial. If I am not in the class picture it may be because my family moved to Cheektowaga that year and we may not have been students when the picture was taken. Trust me though. I was a member of that class and will never forget the sights and smells of my classmates being carried from the building by firefighters that wintry day. Truly, there but for the grace of God. . . . It was fate alone that put me in the brick building's third floor doing reading instead of in the wooden annex with Mrs. Siebold doing music).

Our first reaction to the sound of the fire drill that day was annoyance that the school would be so "cruel" as to stage a fire drill on such a cold snowy day and not allow us to go to our lockers for our jackets. It wasn't until we entered the stairwells, smelled the smoke, and were told by firemen to crouch and walk below the smoke, that we had any sense of crisis. Even when we saw bodies carried out, our minds could not, would not wrap around the reality of it all. We were taken to the high school across the street and encouraged to sing songs until the buses could take us home. I walked in my sleep for years. Perhaps you know someone who could try to find Judy's name. (Editor's note: My information is that Judy Marchese did not die in the fire. A memoir that follows later confirms that. I have told Gloria. After informing Gloria of my conclusion, she replied this way: Cheers indeed. I would be so grateful to find out she is alive! Thank you so much, Ed. Gloria)

Frank Lluongo is another name I remember. He did not die but had much reconstructive surgery. It struck me that his ears must have melted onto his face. Just seeing him filled me with both sadness and admiration. He is another brave one without a mention in the article.

Thank you again for listening to this. Years go by when I do not even think of the tragedy. Yet when I do, I want these people, my friends long gone by, remembered well and correctly.

Linda Schultz

This is Linda Schultz. You must remember us, we were the Tall Schultz with the Dance School on the corner of Oehman and Cleveland Drive, 681 Cleveland to be exact. I enjoyed reading your article on the fire. Donna Ritter had sent it to me. I live in Naples Florida right now. I ran the dance school for 46 years and a total of 76 years that my Mom had it in her name. The Geraldine Hoffman School of Dance. We had the school right in our home on Cleveland Drive. My sister Mary Ellen was in the fire and a lot of her friends were killed in it. In fact my sister Donna is married to Norm Stumpf's son John Stumpf. Norm Stumpf was our old spelling teacher at Cleve Hill. She lives right down the street from me in Naples Florida now. If you need anything I have a lot of the newspapers articles on the fire. Did you ever hear from Kathy Foulon? She was my best friend and I know she moved to New Mexico a long time ago.

Jennine Stallings

My mother was a student at the school. Her name was Jan Bradley. Sadly, she died last year (2006). I found the site (of the fire) and I remember her talking about it. She remembered it being in the music annex and no one could go out that way, so her class went out a different way, and had to run across the street without coats. Then she said that after that they were all in a church (I think) and she remembered people holding up coats, hats and gloves to see who they belonged to.

Dean W. Talbot

Thank you so very much for your article (of 2006). I keep coming back to it trying to make some sense of that day.

Some remembrances of March 31, 1954.

My kindergarten class was on its way to lunch. We were lined up in the hall in the old building right where the connector tunnel attached. Our teacher was the only one able to see down the tunnel toward the annex. I was near the corner toward the front of the line. I don’t remember the explosion. The teacher yelled "Run!" and pointed back down the hall toward the kindergarten classroom. We all ran to the exit near Mrs. Moehrle's house. We assembled near the street and watched the emergency response as it unfolded before us.

We were right at the end of Mrs. Moehrle's driveway looking into her garage. That's where they set up triage. I watched as a series of injured students were led or carried from the school, up the driveway to the garage and as medical personnel arrived. I remember someone asking for some music to calm things down and soon a radio was playing inside the garage.

One song in particular reminds me of that day, "Bimbo," by Jim Reeves. It played on that radio in the garage…

"Bimbo, Bimbo, where ya gonna go-e-o
Bimbo, Bimbo, whatcha gonna do-e-o
Bimbo, Bimbo, does your mommy know
That you're goin' down the road to see a little girleo"

I saw kids with skin, hair and clothing burned from them. I felt guilty it wasn't me. I felt terror. No one had time to comfort me. I can understand that now. I remember a few mothers from the neighborhood trying to sooth us.

We couldn’t see much of anything of the fire itself because of the two story building between us and the annex. I heard an announcement of the incident over the radio which just scared me more. I was in the news and knew more about it than the guy on the radio.

After a while we were moved to the school’s auditorium. I remember students and teachers doing a talent contest to try to calm everyone. That picture in your article of Melba Siebold and Emily Murphy reminds me of that. The auditorium seemed old and dark to me at the time. Being in kindergarten, this was the first time I had been there.

After a while my mother came and she was obviously extremely happy to see me. She hugged me so very tightly and just broke down. We lived only about 300 yards from the annex so she could see the smoke, but probably knew nothing other than it was bad. I’m sure she had no idea what had happened to me and she was very upset.

I wish I could have had Mom contribute to this but she passed away in 2001. Unfortunately, we never really talked much about that day.

Joan Schaefer Ringheim

This is a rather involved tale but, to begin, I was doing some research and found your website. I read your article about the Cleveland Hill fire on 1954 and knew, you were, indeed someone I knew. I am Joan Schafer Ringheim class of 1962.

My journey to this research involved a situation that occurred at the school where I work --- an elementary --- on Friday 3/7/08. There was a definite gas smell outside the dock door. The gas co. wanted to evacuate the building but the principal thought all would be ok --- luckily it was a good call.

On the way home, something about the air, sky, whatever took me back to 1954 and I recalled the events of the day as they unfolded for me. I thought how lucky we were this Friday. How horrific March 31, 1954 was for all of us. I could not remember the reason, how many died etc. so I began researching and came across your article.

At the time of the fire, I was in 4th grade at Infant of Prague school. That day we were dismissed for lunch at around 11:30. I walked home for lunch every day as we were about 2 blocks away. I saw the smoke to my left as I headed to the corner of Fosset and Cleveland. I remember saying to the other kids, that is where Cleveland Hill is. My brother was in 7th grade.

My Mom was away that day, which was unusual, so my Grandmother got lunch for me and I remember my Dad calling and telling my Grandmother not to send me back to school as there was a fire at the school. My uncle was taking him to the school to get my brother. This was so unusual, I felt frightened.

I remember my Dad, uncle, and brother coming home sometime after that. My brother was in Mr. Stumpf's class which was on the first floor of the High School opposite the office. I do not know how my Dad and Uncle got that far --- I know he parked a long way away from the school, but do not know how he found my brother in that class. I know he said Mr. Stumpf was dressed in a suit, tie and white shirt that was covered in soot.

When they arrived home, we were all there and I could not understand why they were so upset. My brother was ok --- had not been involved. It was the first time I remember seeing my Dad cry --- which blew me away.

I remember hearing 6 children died --- did not remember the others nor any thing related after the fire --- like funerals. My mind does not go beyond that day and my narrow world.

I do know that in those days armies of grief counselors did not ascend on us but the nun, Sister Eileen, allowed us to talk about the fire and feelings all morning the following day which was highly unusual for our class time.

I know my parents had lots of discussions with my brother about the fire, he did not want to talk about it very much if at all. Was very quiet and perhaps sad.

This is my recollection of the fire --- from a very near-sighted 4th grader. My most vivid memory is knowing the smoke I saw was from the school.

Donna Bagley Linenau

Until last week (week prior to April 13, 2008) I had no idea that a memorial had been dedicated to the 15 innocent children who lost their lives in that horrible fire March 31, 1954. My sister, Verna H. Bagley, was among the 15 (who died). I was only seven at the time of the fire and attended the south elementary school ... all I can remember is from a 7 year old's vantage point. A new acquaintance told me about the memorial and has given me photos and a rubbing of it which I greatly appreciate. I express my appreciation to those who are responsible for this remembrance. Although I live many miles from Cheektowaga, my thoughts often go back to that awful day when I lost my sister and my parents lost their first born child. Tragic! ... I have often wondered in my adult life, why that whole tragedy was swept under the carpet and rarely mentioned. Thanks to all concerned!!

Jim McTaggart

Are you aware of the "Rest of the Story" concerning Reba Smith? Her dad was the pastor at Maryvale Drive Presbyterian Church at that time. As I try to recall history the Smith family did not take any money from the school for her death. Some time later, maybe when her class graduated, the class or the school, donated the Bell to Maryvale Drive Church in her memory. I would guess a handsome amount of money and I suspect still rings to this day. Editor's note: Jim is referring to the Rev. Charles B. Smith who at the time was the chaplain for the Cleveland Hill Volunteer Fire Company.

Rebecca Webster

Both my mother (Constance Love) and aunt were in the school at the time of the fire. My aunt was one of the severely burned victims - Nancy Love.

Alan and Judy Blackburn

Thank you for a superlative tribute to the unsung heroes who saved so many lives that day, and to those whose lives were needlessly lost. I was there that day in my third grade classroom in the new annex, probably right across the hall from you. There is so much that has never been said about the months leading up to that day, about the remarkable teachers who got us out as the smoke rushed down the tunnel into our corridor, and about the days and weeks and years afterward when too little was said because that's how things were handled then. Have you ever wondered why that boiler didn't blow in 1953, before we moved to the new building? Believe it or not, I've only discussed the fire once with anyone who was involved; and that was at our 35th reunion. Enough said. I do remember you because you were an upper classman, but I doubt you would remember me; I was Judy Pfetsch then. Many years have passed, and many tragedies, but that day in March in 1954 will haunt us all forever. Thank you for taking the time to address it in a way that may help many come to closure.

(Our Cleveland Hill High School) reunion was actually a lot of fun. We toured the school and, to my complete surprise, both the tunnel and the "new" annex are gone. The memorial to those who died in the fire is quite lovely, though you have to wonder why it took them 50 years to pay tribute. Six of us toured the facility, but only two of us were there the day of the fire. Not knowing that the tunnel and annex were gone, I began to hyperventilate and seriously wondered whether I could go into those buildings. I'll never know. My classmate (we were together for our first five years) remembered who first noticed the flames and reported it to our teacher. It was a day of remembering, and quite cathartic for those of us who never got to remember because in those days you just had to get over it and get on with your life.

Paul Eismann

I was in fifth grade at that time, sat next to the window, Janet Reichart sat to my right, Nancy (I think) behind. Our teacher was Mrs. Hickler. It's odd that these names are so clear, faces visible and emotions so vivid at this time!

Terry Hillery

Editor's note: I have received a magnificent memoir from Terry, whose mother was June Mahany, the student teacher with Mrs. Siebold and her class. When Terry sent me this memoir earlier this year, he asked I not publish it. I have urged him to change his mind. His memoir gives us historic insights about June Mahany --- virtually nothing has been written about her. I am holding the memoir on file and will publish it if Terry agrees. (Terry did agree and it has been posted above)

Dennis Edwards

Over the Christmas (2008) holiday, my brothers and my Mom and I were talking about when we were kids and the subject of the Cleveland Hill fire came up. As a result, I googled it up on a whim and discovered your web site. What I noticed about your tribute to the heroes of the fire (which was great) was that you were going to write an article from the standpoint of those who suffered through it.

While I wasn't at the fire, I was a kindergarten student at Buffalo's P.S. 61, on Kensington Ave. My brother was in the 4th grade, and I was at home (morning kindergarten only in those days). I will never forget my mom coming to the back window to check on us since my friends and I had all gone silent........because we lived close enough to Kensington Ave. to hear all the ambulances. It seemed to never end. Then later the accounts of the fire on the radio, and details of those who died.....for many years afterward, even when we'd gone on to Jr. High......the sound of sirens in the distance, especially if there were a large fire drew chills and silence among us. Needless to say, I never had a fire drill where there was any fooling around among the kids - we all knew we could have been one of the Cleveland Hill kids. Reading the account of Blaine Poss still brings tears to my eyes - so young, to be so remarkable in his bravery.

Sarah Yachin

I am writing you from Tel-Aviv, Israel, after having read your page on the Cleveland Hill Elementary School Fire. I was very moved after reading about this tragic event, and so I hope you won't mind me writing you about it, and taking up your time with this message. I have reached this page because of a song by Jackson C. Frank. I expect you are familiar with him, as he is a survivor, though indeed a victim, of this event. His song, which I have found so moving for a long time, is called Marlene (recorded in 1978). I have known this song for a long time, but only today, after listening to the lyrics more carefully, have understood it is about Marlene, a girl who died in this fire, whom, as I understand from the song, he "let go" of. The lyrics are hard to understand, but one can understand that the girl was playing tambourine in the music class they were attending, and that she died in the fire after he let go of her (that is at least what I can gather). I don't know whether the girl is Marlene Dupont or Marlene Miller. Jackson C. Frank is a singer who has always moved me, and who has lived a tragic life, suffering from depression and medical problems caused by the disaster. I have always found this song to be extremely moving. I have never connected it to this event until today, and reading your page on the fire has made this story come alive to me. I found it so tragic and moving, that I wanted to write you about it. I wanted to thank you for your commemoration of the tragedy and the lives lost in it.

Jim Hamann

I didn't attend the school but I remember it vividly. My cousin, Charles Brand, perished in the fire and could only be identified by his belt buckle. It affected our whole family. I was a senior in Tonawanda High School and I could see the smoke from my home. I am a teacher and to this day I can't teach in a portable classroom.

Bonnie Fosmer Overfield

I attended Cleveland Hill Elementary School, and was in the fourth grade in the (newer) brick building next to the Annex which burned (connected by the tunnel).

I have been only recently (the past few years) remembering my experience regarding this, and I was not directly in the fire, but saw it all as the terrible event unfolded before my young eyes. I wake up often with nightmares about the whole thing, and see the faces of those kids who perished or were burned and lived. Reba Smith (a victim) was our Pastor's daughter from the Maryvale Drive Presbyterian Church I attended as a child. No one ever told us back then to talk about it or gave us therapy or anything to help us cope with what has been a lasting memory for me. It's almost like "Survivor's Guilt" in a way, and I say to myself, "Why did those kids have to die, and how did we escape so close to the fire.?" I knew many of those kids, and a very close friend, Barbara Benson, lived across the street from me, and stayed home the day of the fire. She survived.

I remember vividly the day it happened. There was a layer of snow on the roof of the annex, and our classroom was in the connected building, (in the photo) at the end of the hall on the second floor. There wasn't much room between the two buildings, and when the fire started to send smoke through the roof, we were still in our classroom. The smoke "trickled" in little spots all over the roof, and I remember thinking, "What is that?" For some unknown reason, we didn't leave the building until the classroom phone rang and Mrs. McGuire picked up the phone, and I saw horror on her face. Her lips were quivering as she told us (it was then that the fire alarm was sounding) to get in a single file and walk, not run down the stairs to the exit. We started down the stairs, and I remember looking down the hall and saw a huge black billow of smoke rolling our way, coming from the tunnel, I guess. We were quickly ushered across the parking lot to the High School Cafeteria, where we were given hot soup. I remember crying that my brother (who was in 5th grade) might be in the fire. No one knew at that time what grade or how many kids were in that building. Later on, we were all taken to the High School Auditorium, where some sort of musical entertainment was on stage, but no one paid much attention to it. We were all pretty scared, and just wanted to go home.

After a "head count" by the teachers, we were put on buses (without our coats) and got home very much later then usual. I remember my parents crying with relief that both my brother (who arrived home earlier) and I had made it home OK. My parents couldn't get anywhere near the school to find out if we were OK. The radio was still reporting all the kids involved in the fire. The phone rang all that night with concerned relatives and friends. My parents read us the articles from the newspaper and I remember the terrible photos in Life Magazine.

We went back to school in about a week or so, and I remember how bad my coat smelled from the smoke. I also remember that there was a twin boy in our class who had lost his twin sister (Watkins) and how sad he looked when he came back to school. I also remember another girl (who was a fire victim) who got on the bus, sometime later, and how I didn't want to look at her scarred face and make her feel bad. Another memory was little drops of dried blood that were still on the floor in the tunnel hallway when we went back to school, and the doorway to the burned annex boarded up with wood. (It was right across from the cafeteria where we ate lunches).

I looked up the Cleveland Hill School Fire on this website and saw that you wanted to hear from anyone attending Cleveland Hill School that year. I attended the Cleveland Hill School system from Kindergarten through 9th grade, when we moved to Alden, NY. Our neighbor who lived next door to us in Alden, was Mrs. Jors, who lost her granddaughter, Susan Jors, in the fire. What a small world. I didn't really think much about the fire until the past few years, but it must have been in my memory waiting to tell someone. My husband knows and has a great deal of compassion for anyone having to deal with something like that. I never knew how much I had been traumatized from that horrible event so many years ago. Thank you for giving me a forum to vent my experience. I hope I have helped you in your quest.

Editor's note: After reading these memoirs, Bonnie said the following on August 24, 2009:

This is a follow-up I felt compelled to write you, after I had read all of the Memoirs, including my own, of that terrible day in 1954 which will be in my memory forever.

I broke down after I played the songs by Jackson C. Frank, "Marlene" and "I Want To Be Alone". The video of the latter song was absolutely how he must have remembered that horrific day. Until recently, I had no idea how many lives, including mine, have been affected by the fire. The Survivor's Guilt I have felt, and didn't know what it was all about (until a label was put on the way I felt). I understand now why I, too, cannot be in confined spaces, and the mere sounds of fire or ambulance sirens makes me cringe with fright. But, then, who am I to even say how I have been affected when so many others were so much, much worse off than I was!

It has put things in perspective for me to read all of the memoirs, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for having this website for me, other students and their family and friends to have a place to remember... It is saved to my "favorites", but not that it relates to that .

God Bless You,

Bonnie Fosmer Overfield

Carol Mikulec Weber

I was just surfing "Cleve-Hill school fire" and came across your request for students who witnessed the fire. My (6th grade?) class was unscathed because we were in the auditorium at the time. But I will never forget the panic when the alarm sounded, the doors were opened and the smoke rushed in!! It seemed like forever to get out of the building through the smoke...with no idea of what lies ahead! But due to that experience I'm not crazy of confined areas and I always look for the exit signs... general common sense. I don't consider myself a wimp since at this age I'm still a dare-devil on skis...but the fire and the tragic outcome is something one does not forget!

But as a parent, I believe my mom's story of standing at the site, as the firefighters tried to do their duty and move parents behind the lines, and hearing the screams as the roof caved in...or seeing the music teacher (Mrs. Siebold) break the window panes and climb out the window with kids...there are no words to explain the horror or emotions or heroism ...nor the experience of parents standing in the principals office ... awaiting to hear the names of the living, God help us ... a living nightmare!!!

Because of this tragedy, a new safety code was enforced: no wooden school buildings with painted-shut small window panes, nor outdated boiler heating systems! We learn from our mistakes but in this case 15 lives were lost.

I no longer live in the Buffalo area but my husband and I still have family-ties there.

Craig Schwab

Yes, I remember the lunch room, filled with commotion, and the teachers quickly taking all grades out across the driveway to the high school auditorium. In order to keep the children's minds off what was happening at the school, several high school students put on a variety show for the rest of us.

I remember my dad had a police badge (even though he wasn't a police officer!) and he showed the badge to one of the teachers. This allowed him to get into the auditorium see if Laurie, Paul and I were alright.

Betsy Bandelian

I did go to the ceremony commemorating installation of a stone memorial a few years ago. I do believe it had all the names of the deceased on it.

My brother, sister and I did not attend Cleveland Hill at the time of the fire as we had turned Catholic and switched to St. Aloysius. This was a God-send, literally, since my brother would have been in that class. We did all attend and graduate from Cleveland Hill High School. I personally can tell you that day I remember looking out the window at St. Al's and seeing a few frantic mothers on the street. Most were stay-at-home moms in those days and generally there were no second cars in the families to allow them to ride to the school. My brother Karl is having his 50th reunion next year. I am sure many of the survivors will be there.

Do you remember Lies' Drug Store? Mrs Lee taught at the school and also was my kindergarten teacher. And her daughter Betsy was lost in the fire. I took German class with her brother Bert and I always felt a twinge when Mrs. Doblin would call me by my name. It was not a common name.

Craig Luther

I was in Florida at that time. We did get a Buffalo paper and saw the pictures. My brother, Paul's class, would have been in the annex building at the time. (class of 1959).

Richard Odien

If you're in Buffalo and could visit the CHHS Board of Education office, a scrap book was put together about the Cleve Hill fire. The book is in the Office of the Superintendent.

Marjorie Mayhorn Thomas

I was in the 2nd grade at the time, in Miss Brinkworth's class. When the fire alarm went off, I was in the restroom with another classmate. I don't remember who. We left the restroom and went straight to our classroom. It was the first one on the right up a stairway from the main entrance. I can vividly remember the rest of the class was already lined up at the door and as we returned from the restroom, I ended up being the first in line. Miss Brinkworth took my hand and we rounded the corner to go down the steps and out the front door. When we rounded the corner there was a solid black wall of smoke. I can see it in my mind's eye as if it were just a minute ago. Miss Brinkworth immediately turned us around and led the class down the long hall toward the far staircase which emptied out onto the road between the elementary school and the high school. We were led into the HS auditorium where we sat for what seemed like a long time. While we sat there people were piling coats, boots, etc. on the stage. I know now it was clothing from across the way. I remember later we were bussed home to our regular bus stop. I can remember walking down my street, sans coat. My Mother tells of seeing me coming down the street and running to meet me. I do not remember any more about that day, but the wall of smoke is so very, very implanted in my memory. I ended up graduating from Cleveland Hill in 1964 and still keep in touch with several of my classmates. Except for the fire, all my memories of CHHS are good ones where lifelong friends were made.

Barbara Rybarczyk

I was a student in Mrs. Lies' 2nd grade class at the time of the fire. When the fire erupted our class was going from the gymnasium to the main building through the old passageway. We had just gone 1/2 way through when smoke filled the passageway. The P. E. teacher turned us around and led us into the snow outside of the new wing. After a little while we were taken to the High School auditorium, I think. When Mrs. Lie finally found us she just sobbed. She had lost her daughter in the fire, and thought she had lost her whole class as well. That is something I will never forget.

Dorothy Siebert

I've read your story on the fire and it brought back a lot of memories. At the time of the fire I was was going to Mother of Divine Grace school, but I remember seeing all the black smoke from our classroom window. I lived in Tiorunda at the time and a lot of the children that died did also. It was devastating to see that night's newspaper. I remember they had the individual school pictures all on the front page of the children that died. Then I remember going to Cleve Hill High and the kids that survived were a year ahead of me, but we were in the same gym class and you could see all the scars on their legs etc. Pat Noel, Judy Marchese, Joe Magistrelle were just a couple I remember. Thank you for keeping their memory alive.

Laura LoBue Beckinghausen

I did not attend Cleveland Hill when the fire happened in the elementary school. I did not start at Cleveland Hill until I was in 8th grade. At that time, if I remember correctly, 7th and 8th grade were called Junior High and were in one part of the building off Harlem Rd. The rest of the grades 9 to 12 were Sr. High in the other parts of the building ... Here is a piece of interesting information about the fire. There were 13 trees planted in Cheektowaga Town Park a number of years ago to commemorate the 13 children that died in the fire. A year ago October (October 13, 2006) there was a real bad ice storm in the Buffalo area and thousands of trees were damaged or completely knocked down. It did a lot of damage to the trees at Town Park. This past fall 13 new trees were planted in the Park in the children's memory. Editor's note: This befuddles me. Fifteen children died as the result of this fire. Others have said 13 as well, and I changed the number to 15. But what I don;t understand is how could a memorial be built with only 13 trees instead of 15 --- anyone know?

Marianne Kelsey

There is a lot I remember of the especially that of my Dad being there with the firemen. I went to Infant of Prague when it happened, but knew many of the kids that went there.

Sandra Schmidt

I was in junior high at the time, just delivered a message to Mrs. Seibold. Just stood there and watched. I will never forget that day.

Carol Mansell

Every yearbook, while attending Cleve Hill, was dedicated to the victims of that tragic fire. But I had never seen any photos like the ones on your site, and never heard or saw the individual stories of that tragic day. So sad and horrific and such a waste of young lives. You must have been around 10 or so that day so you must have some vivid nightmarish memories. Unfortunately, I can't help you with your search for people who remember that day. My brother was too little and my mom, who raced over to the school that dreadful day, is gone.

Robert Williams

The pictures reminded me of the horrible devastation and tragedy so many families and friends suffered. Two children in my neighborhood suffered serious injuries and two died so the impact was deeply felt. I remember being in the elementary auditorium operating a movie projector for my fifth grade class when the fire alarm went off. While being escorted to the senior high I saw a boy running down the tunnel toward us and his face was blackened. I'm not sure even then that I realized it was for real and not a drill. When I arrived home I heard Omaha relatives had heard and had called.

Paul Martin

I do have memories of this tragic fire. Fortunately neither I nor my 4 yr older brother were hurt. I was in kindergarten, and had just gone down to the basement lunch room. The noise ... loud boom, and smoke billowed out of the line where older students got their food. Older kids were running out of that corridor with trays in hand....with a cloud of smoke trailing them. Then, we, as a group of 6 yr olds, were ushered out, and went outside, and ultimately to the high school auditorium. Most of us did not grasp what had happened, and thought it was exciting to be in the high school. We waited and waited. Even at that age, we could sense something was seriously wrong. Finally we were released. I was a student who was a walker .... so I simply went home. There were anxious parents everywhere along the street. When I finally got home, my mother was in tears and had ripped off the buttons on her dress, in worry. My brother who had been scheduled to be in the annex later that day, fortunately did not get there before the explosion. He came home later. That's about all I remember. What a tragedy...so senseless, and so devastating to so many families. Take care.

Elmira Estes

I didn't go to Cleveland Hill until the fall of 1955. There was a girl who lived on my street I believe her name was Mary McCarthy and she was in the fire and was burned quite badly, she graduated in 61.

Beverly Walloch

I remember being picked up from kindergarten by my father and we just got to the house and out of the car when we saw smoke in the sky in the direction of the school. I also remember insisting my Dad walk me down the long connecting hallway to get to first grade the next fall and going to first grade second shift just like Dad went to work second shift.

Ken Weygandt

One of my classmates, Bob Edinhofer, was instrumental in saving the life of at least one of the kids trying to get out of the building. As the story goes, he picked him or her up and tossed him or her out of the window.

Dennis Harlach

I was in the high school cafeteria and saw the doors of the tunnel blow open, black smoke poured out, and then the doors slammed shut. The tunnel blocked our view of the flames, etc. And we were hustled out of the cafeteria real quick. I was a year ahead of the kids and knew at least four. One, John Mendofik did not make it. But I believe our whole year's class (of '59) was in that building one year. I remember it well as it had a twin in Tiorunda, just across the athletic field where we played ball and then goofed in the rubble when it was being torn down.

Beverly Steele Hunt

I remember that I was in the upper girl's gym when the fire broke out and the girls and I took care of some of the kids they brought into the lower gym. That was one very terrifying day as my youngest brother Kenny Hunt just left that building after a music class. We are so glad he escaped that awful time. That's all I remember about that day.

Ed Marek

I was in 4th grade. I was standing in the lunch line getting my food, and was pretty well along the line. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I heard commotion behind me and saw smoke entering the line. My memory is that Jonathan Hause was behind me in the line, either directly behind or a few people behind. I recall a teacher telling us to leave the lunch line immediately and go into the cafeteria, which I did. I heard later that Jonathan had to bite the dust and was burned a bit on his head and back I think. He managed to get out of there and survived, as did all the kids, I believe, in the line.

Once I entered the cafeteria, law and order seemed to prevail. I remember a teacher telling us to move in an orderly fashion toward the door that was closest to the principal's office and the front exit from the school. I recall vividly that the door opened okay, but I and others got a glimpse of Mr. Restorff, the principal, walking around shaken with black soot all over his face, and smoke was coming into that front foyer. So someone shut the door immediately. That's when things got a bit unruly, and some panic set in among us.

The teachers, however, kept their cool, and simmered us down, got us all back in line, and directed us to go out the far door which exited into the driveway between us and the high school. They did a terrific job and we all marched out in a most orderly way.

Everything after that is a blank for me, until I and the others were released. I don't think I understood the severity of what was happening, so I walked to my school bus which was parked out in front with the others. I walked to it in a most routine way. All of a sudden, just as I was ready to board, someone yanked me by the collar and chewed me out for getting on the bus. He then hugged me and cried. He was my dad. He didn't want me on any stupid bus, but instead in his car and on the way home, which is what we did.

Then we all huddled around the TV to follow the reports.

I will never be certain how this fire affected me. I experienced many downsides in life as I grew up, mainly because when my mom delivered my sister in April 1954, she endured a horrific series of nervous breakdowns which today I believe would have been handled as routine post partem depression. But then she was treated with electro shocks and state hospitals and became an alcoholic.

The short story is I experienced a very difficult period in life right through college until I got married, got away, and entered the Air Force for a career.

Oddly, when I went to my first school training assignment in San Angelo, Texas, I had to wait on the sidelines until my security clearances came through. While waiting, I was assigned as a second lieutenant to an enlisted school squadron and given a stack of extra duties. One of these was to be the fire marshal for the squadron. All our enlisted barracks were made from wood. I took this job very seriously. I held no-notice fire alarms in our barracks at least once per week. Our first sergeant loved me for this --- he liked to disrupt the troops. We would hold the drills in the middle of the night and early morning hours.

Once we thought the barracks was pretty well empty, I and the first sergeant would walk through the entire building to make sure everyone was out. I remember one troop attempted to sleep through it. He would not wake up, so I did what no 2nd Lt would ever do today --- I kicked his bed and then finally kicked him in the butt. I was so angry I could not see straight.

The first sergeant was so proud of me --- I don't think he ever saw such a young officer acting like that. The kid got up and I told him that he'd better respond to the fire drill or I would court martial him for failure to follow a lawfully given order. The first sergeant stepped in and escorted the kid out to the formation of waiting troops. We never had a problem with him thereafter. My squadron commander, a captain, shook my hand and took me over to the Club after work to buy me drinks.

I do like others have said, always enter meetings from the rear, look for the exits, and sit close to them. Don't know if that's from the fire or not. Life is complicated. It is an amalgamation of all our experiences and these experiences make us who we are today. This was one I will never forget.

As I did this article, and the previous one, the whole thing came roaring back to me. Looking at the photos of those who perished --- wow, such innocents. Now, so many years later, I confess to being very angry at the authorities who had that stupid annex put up in the first place. Windows that would not open --- that's a mortal sin for a school or any building. Having a fly-by-night furnace in there was a disaster waiting to happen. I am presently frustrated with the kind of leadership we have in our government, and am now angry, very angry at those responsible for that annex. At the same time, the acts of heroism from so many corners during that fire and after are uplifting and reflect the very highest order of what we Americans are. God bless them all.

Those are the memoirs I have received. Should anyone want to add to these, simply e-mail me and I'll put them on.

For those whose memoirs are already on-line, you might wish to send a photo of yourself. I'll include those with your memoir.
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Return to Introduction
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Other memoirs on-line:

"It is 50 years since the Cleveland Hill Elementary School fire took 15 lives," by Barbara O'Brien, News Southtowns Bureau

Tiorunda Stories, by John Marohn

Jackson C. Frank - Dialogue