Talking Proud Archives --- Culture

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

The fire and its aftermath

Let's get the lay of the land. I'll ask you to use some imagination here as I do not have original photos of the complex involved in the fire before the fire struck.


This is busy. Sorry. It is an aerial shot following the fire and reflects that the wooden annex was completely destroyed. You can still see firemen working the fire. It was a single story building. You can see it was located between the permanent brick school buildings, two floors of classrooms to the upper left, more buildings to the right. It was built as a temporary means to handle students from an influx of new residents to work for local companies. The main brick building was insufficient to handle the increased student population, so up went the wooden annex, in retrospect, a huge mistake.

If you study the photo carefully, you can see there were eight classrooms in the annex, four on the left, four on the right. Between the classrooms is a hallway, exiting the building at the lower end, entering a tunnel at the other end. The tunnel connected the annex to the brick buildings. The cafeteria was off to the right in the main building. Students standing in the lunch line would often wind out into the tunnel waiting to get into the lunch line in the main brick building.

For my purposes here, we have four main areas on which to concentrate when you read the memoirs. First, of course, was the wooden annex itself. Second, the waiting line in the connector waiting to get into the lunch line, and the lunch line itself where the food was served to students hold trays. Third, after exiting the lunch-line was the main cafeteria. Finally, there was the main brick building of the school.

My recollection is that the cafeteria had an exit that went into the main school building close to the principal's office, and another exit at the far end from that which exited the entire building into a driveway between the elementary school and the high school.


This photo, presented by Life Magazine's April 19, 1954 edition, is of the burning wooden annex. It shows several important things. I'll come back to it later. For now, I simply want to underscore that this was a wooden building susceptible to a fast burning fire. The windows with their panes were very difficult to open, frankly an inexcusable mistake.

This building was completely destroyed in about 30 minutes.

GriffinsClass

Mr. Thomas Griffin's 6th Grade Class, photographed in October 1953. Photo presented by Life Magazine, April 19, 1954. The adult at left is Thomas J. Griffin, homeroom teacher. He was ill at home on the day of the fire. The students are from L-R at the bottom of the , left, first row: 1 - Marlene Miller; 2 - Joseph Magistrale; 3 - Allen De Forest; 4 - Thomas F. Ray; 5 - Michael W. Hause; 6 - Frances Kozlowska; 7 - Marlene Du Pont; 8 - Judith Marchese; 9 - Richard Hoff; 10 - John T. Mendofik; 11 - Blaine Poss; 12 - Bruce Brand; 13 - Patricia Noel; 14 - Patricia Blendowski; 15 - Barbara Watkins; 16 - Jackson Frank; 17 - Donald Kelleher; 18 - Dennis Cervi; 19 - James Luongo; 20 - Reba J. Smith; 21 - Barbara Benson, who moved out of the district before the fire; 22 - Patricia Steger; 23 - George Hoffman; 24 - Ann Jaeckle; 25 - Verna H. Bagley; 26 - Lawrence Wojtkowski; 27 - Elizabeth L. Lies; 28 - Suzanne Jors; 29 - Nancy Love; 30 - Michael Cody

At the time the fire erupted, there was only one class in session in the annex. Mr. Thomas Griffin's sixth graders were attending Mrs. Melba Y. Siebold's music class in the annex. Mr. Griffin was out ill this day. Mrs. Siebold's student teacher that day was June Muhaney. It was Ms. Muhaney's last day. There was also a man in the room, a choir gown salesman. Ms. Muhaney was leading the teaching for this class, with Mrs. Siebold observing. School officials have said there were 38 students in her class that day, ranging in age from 10-11.

There was a loud explosion. It turned out it was the furnace in the basement boiler room.


This is a close up look at the faulty furnace, following the fire. You can see multiple holes in the furnace wall, from which gas had been leaking, it is believed, for some time, as people had been complaining of odd smells. Photo presented by Life Magazine, April 19, 1954.

The explosion, set off by leaking and building gas fumes in the basement, sent flames shooting upward through the building’s hallway. The March 25, 2004 edition of the
Cheektowaga Times described what happened next:

“Mrs. Siebold (shown in this photo, date unknown) rushed to the (hallway) door and saw flames. She instructed her students to open the windows, but the windows would not budge. Mrs. Siebold and her student teacher June Muhaney and the students broke the nine-pane, conventional double sash-type windows with their hands as the fire quickly spread through the building.”

Muhaney was interviewed by the
Times on April 1, 1954, and she described the scene this way:

“There was a loud noise, very sudden. I guess it was an explosion. It must have been. The door from the classroom to the hall was open at the time, and I suddenly saw smoke pour down the hall. Then the whole hall was in flames. The kids rushed toward the door as the flames rushed into the room. I think it was the children who ran toward the door who were burned most seriously.

“Some of the kids got panicky. When Mrs. Siebold saw the flames, she hollered, ‘Break the windows.!’ I rushed to the windows. So did Mrs. Siebold and the gentleman ... The windows were locked. We all broke them, with our fists. They were small panes. Then we started shoving the children out of the windows.”

Some of the children used chairs to break the windows, the small ones climbed out through the small panes.

We'll come back to the photo I showed earlier to remind you of the intensity of the flames.


A number of points. First, look at those windows, specifically the areas between the panes. You can understand how hard it must have been to get the kids through those. All that fire and those panes are still there. Second, note the ferocity of the flames, and imagine the intense heat and toxic fumes they produced. Third, look at all that wood, and imagine how fast it burned. Look through the windows and see the fallen beams and studs. Fourth, look at that black smoke, and look how dark it is inside the building. Finally, look at the difference between life and death, a very short distance from the inside, out the window, and to the ground. But the damn windows would not open and the small panes presented yet another deadly obstacle. The result, 10 kids couldn't get out, over that short distance, and they perished inside.

Ms. Muhaney thought they got all the kids out at the time, so she jumped out, but not before suffering burns to her legs and cuts on her arms. She said she was sure she saw Mrs. Siebold get out.

I want to pause and make a comment about Mrs. Siebold. A group called
Coordinated Care presented her with its "Prime Time" Award in 1997, honoring Western New York citizens who exemplify successful aging. The organization said this about her:

"Melba Siebold's sense of purpose and generous nature are a true testament to a very long and successful life. She is an inspiration to all of her peers as well as those whom she touches daily. Melba retired from teaching music in 1960. After she retired, she and her husband traveled, but when he became ill and later died, she knew that there was more work to be done for others. Her music left an indelible mark on her sense of commitment. She was instrumental in saving the lives of 24 children in her music class during the disastrous school fire in 1954. After a two year recovery from the burns and smoke inhalation she returned to teaching. She became an effective advocate for teaching stringed instruments to elementary school children. She fought for and established the Cleveland Hill elementary School Orchestra at a time when it was not fashionable to teach the very young difficult music."

Most or all of the 10 kids who died inside the building were later found near the window wall of the room, described by one journalist as huddled under the windows. They fought to get out, each one a hero of the highest order, but the deck was stacked against them. They are pictured here. You don't have to know any of them --- their photos and knowing how they died will tear your heart out.


Bruce Brand


Verna Bagley


Marlene Dupont


Michael Hause


Elizabeth Lies


John Mendofik


Blaine Poss


Reba Smith


Patricia Steger


Barbara Watkins


This was only the beginning of the terror.

At least 20 were injured. Six medical doctors collaborated to write an article,
"Treatment of Mass Civilian Burn Casualties: Care of Clevelad Hill School Fire Victims." I have extracted some of what they said that I could understand.

All 20 burn casualties were admitted to the emergency rooms of the Edward J. Meyer Memorial Hospital during a 30-minute period. This was a mass burn casualty for the hospital. Extensive blood supplies were used for the patients, quite a bit of fluids were administered along with antibiotics. Fever was a problem with three cases rising to 105.8, 105.2 and 107.6. All three survived. Those experiencing serious fever issues were packed in ice, given ice water edemas, and had fans blowing cool air over their exposed bodies. A most worrisome problem was relevant to respiratory issues.

Eleven of the 20 were estimated to have in excess of 20 percent body surface burns and were kept in the ER. But the other nine went immediately to surgical wards. The five worst cases, ranging from 60 to 100 percent of their bodies burned, died. They are shown here.


Patricia Blendowski


Donald Kelleher


Marlene Miller


Suzanne Jors


George Hoffman


Each of the five fought valiantly to stay alive in hospital, each a gallant hero.

Patricia Blendowski fought for about 60 hours. She was listed by the hospital as Case 1. She suffered 100 percent of her body burned and encountered a complete renal shutdown which persisted until she died.

Case 2 was 91 percent burned and survived 26 hours. Case 3 was 90 percent burned and survived 57 hours. Case 4 suffered 75 percent burns and survived 8.5 days. Case 5 suffered 60 percent burns and survived 54 hours. Cases 2, 3 and 4 suffered from severe facial burns and developed respiratory problems and there was evidence of pulmonary edema clinically at the time of death. Case 5 showed no evidence of respiratory tract burn or over hydration, but suffered at the end from marked respiratory difficulty and rapid death. Case 5 had little in the way of facial burns, but had marked respiratory tract burns yet survived the longest --- I believe from other sources this case was George Hoffman. I am hesitant to identify who goes with each case number --- I think I can make the match, but I'm not sure so I won't, except for George Hoffman which I believe I have nailed down.

These are gruesome numbers and I present them only to highlight the seriousness of their situations and the courage with which each of them fought to live. Remember how young they were --- a natural instinct to survive, even at their young ages.


Dennis Cervi, talking with Dr. James Stephens, and Michel Cody recover in hospital with the help of comic books. Photo presented by Life Magazine, April 19, 1954.

The remaining 15 were covered with dressings which remained in place for 7-8 days. To remove the dressings, the patient had to be immersed in a bathtub of lukewarm water which allowed the crusted dressings to soak until they virtually floated off. These patients were then sent back to bed and extraordinary actions were taken to keep their environment sterile. Each was given daily soaks. It took about three weeks for the tissue to be in good enough shape to endure skin grafts. Multiple procedures were required.

They made it through, though it took until the summer of that year before all these kids were out of hospital. Several suffered excruciating burns and were scarred for life. Again, magnificent fighters and heroes.


Jackson Frank was one of those to receive skin grafts. He was in hospital for seven months after the fire. Frank suffered for the rest of his life from a pronounced limp from skin grafts taken from his leg to repair his face and chest. He also put on a lot of weight later as the result of parathyroid malfunction, a side effect of the fire. He would later become a well-known folk-singer in the 1960s and 70s, releasing an album in 1965, sometimes referred to as "the most famous folk singer of the 1960s no one knew of." In the above photo, you can see the inset showing what he looked like when posing with Mr. Griffin's class, and then what he looked like as a grown young man. Looking closely, you can see the scars on his face and skin graft on his right hand. Those who knew him said he led a most tragic life, having been misdiagnosed with mental illness, when he was actually suffering from depression from his childhood. He was occasionally homeless, and lost one eye when shot with a pellet gun by some kids. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He died in 1999 of pneumonia and cardiac arrest at 56.

Mrs. Siebold got out. She jumped out, but had already suffered serious burns and serious damage from smoke inhalation. She broke several vertebrae in her back after jumping out. Mrs. Siebold spent three months in hospital. Her vocal chords were hurt badly, essential equipment for a music teacher. She had some seven operations to repair the damage. Mrs. Siebold spent two years recovering from her injuries before she could return to her vocation. When she returned, she established the Cleveland Hill Elementary School Orchestra, even though it was not fashionable to teach young kids very difficult music. She knew and loved her kids, she understood their capacity toface great challenges and excel. She was not deterred during the fire of 1954, and would not be, and was not, deterred here.

This is a view of what was left, close-up.


The remnants of the Cleveland Hill Elementary School fire of March 1954. Presented by the Cleveland Hill Fire Department

Mrs. Siebold was credited with saving 24 children. All together, roughly 1,650 students and 150 faculty and support staff survived. Heroism among teachers, staff and students enabled that survival rate.

There was young Blaine Poss, 11, a student in Mrs. Siebold's class. He got out safely, but went back in to fetch his girlfriend. Other children saw him push three children out the window. He was trying to push a window open when the structure fell on him. He died. But another student, Paul Seelau, was able to follow behind and get out through the hole made in the wall. Blaine’s girl friend, Riba Smith, didn’t make it and died as well. Any time one thinks he or she is pretty good, well, it'll be tough to meet the standard set by this young man.

Mrs. Mary Lies, a second grade teacher, left the area with bloodstains on her blouse. There was a tunnel connecting the wooden annex with the main brick school building. Mrs. Lies rushed through the tunnel toward the fire to help the children get out. She carried two burned victims out, knowing all the while her own daughter, Elizabeth, 11, was in there. Her daughter was one of the ten who did not get out. One of the kids Mrs. Lies carried out was Suzanne Jors, who died a few days later in the hospital.

Bert Lies, her husband, owned a local drugstore, ordered medical supplies be rushed to the scene, alerted hospitals and ordered up ambulances, and then hurried to the scene.

Mrs. Vera Schramm, the school nurse, did much the same, calling for doctors and ambulances, and then, working alone, administered first aid to eight badly burned little children who had been taken across the street to the home of Mrs. Carl Moehrle. Mrs. Moehrle used every blanket and sheet in the house to comfort the children until the ambulances got there. 

Miss Ellen Schillinger’s 4th graders were just coming to the cafeteria, standing in the annex tunnel, when the smoke started their way. Cafeteria women closed all the doors, not realizing kids were still in the tunnel. Miss Schillinger squeezed through the door, gathered up all her troops, and scurried them to safety.

Many teachers took responsibility for evacuating the rest of the school. Miss Marie Kennelly helped vacate the cafeteria, telling the students to shove their chairs to the tables to open free passages for others to walk through --- under the circumstances demonstrating great presence of mind. The kids complied. Mrs. Charlottte Taylor and Miss Marie Burgasser marched their children on the second floor through smoke filled corridors to safety. Male teachers ran to the scene, in vain, unable to get through the smoke and fire to rescue anyone. Albert Mirand was burned in his efforts. Irving Restorff, the principal, raced into the tunnel but could find no one to help. He emerged with a face blackened from the smoke.

Mrs. Katherine Brugger tore her dress off to cover the burned body of one child being carried out. Mrs. Henry Hess hailed a passenger car, loaded it up with five burned children, and told the driver to rush them to the hospital. The driver did so.


Cleveland Hill Volunteer firefighters working the school fire, March 31, 1954. Presented by the Cheektowaga Times, April 1, 1954 edition.

Of course, there were the firefighters from the Cleveland Hill Volunteer Fire Department, just a few blocks from the school. Normally, the fire house would be largely vacant. When an alarm came in, the siren sounded, the volunteers would rush to the station from home, work, or the store, grab their equipment, get on the trucks, and get to the scene.

Luckily, in this instance, a group of them was practicing at a nearby Cleveland Drive church when the alarm siren sounded. They lacked two way radios in those days, so the firemen jumped on their truck and got back to the firehouse to await instructions. As they approached the firehouse, colleagues ran out to tell them the school was on fire, so they raced over to the fight.

One student reported that he saw a fireman put on his oxygen tank and mask, walking toward the flames with the intent to go in. Two other firemen grabbed him and stopped him --- he would have been burned to a crisp, the fire was so intense.

It took these firefighters, all volunteers, about 30 minutes to take out most of the fire, and a few days to secure the area completely.


There was not much left of the structure, as you can see in this photo presented by the Buffalo Evening News, March 24, 2004 edition, and the previous aerial shot.


Gene Prawel. left. receives a warm handshake from Kermit Schlicht, at the March 27, 2004 Remembrance Ceremony. Both battled the blaze as Cleveland Hill firefighters. Photo credit: Cheektowaga Times, April 1, 2004 edition.

 

"All hail to thee." Melba Siebold and Cleveland Hill senior Emily Murphy sing the Elementary School Alma Mater at March 27, 2004 Remembrance Ceremony. Mrs. Siebold wrote the alma mater many years ago for the school. Seeing high school senior Emily Murphy standing tall by Mrs. Siebold's side is inspirational. Photo credit: Cheektowaga Times, April 1, 2004 edition.

Elizabeth Allis Gruber, a student and friend of three girls who died in the Cleveland Hill fire, would write 50 years later:

“Those of us left behind, families, friends, classmates, neighbors, remember and grieve yet. Our tears are for those who survived as well, the other children in that classroom who escaped with their lives and for the many rescuers, all bearing scars, physical and emotional. Even today the heart-wrenching emotions return, triggered by events when I least expect them - I would have it no other way. I never want to forget, nor should any of us.”

There is much to remember. There is also much to honor, those brave souls who fought so hard.

So now is the time to move on to the memories of those who wrote in since I wrote this story in April 2006. It's taken three years to get these and it's been worth the wait. I reaffirm that I hope others will send in their stories and I'll add them in to the next section.
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The memoirs: People can add to what I present whenever they are so moved.