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Remembering the lives lost in the Cleveland Hill fire

The memorial is now permanently located in front of the school. Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Staff Photographer

BY: Kaitlin Fritz, Community Papers of WNY | April 02, 2014

This week marked the anniversary of a tragedy that struck the community of Cleveland Hill 60 years ago. On March 31, 1954, the lives of 15 Cleveland Hill students were lost in a fire that devastated the community and changed fire codes in schools throughout the state and the entire nation.

A remembrance ceremony and permanent memorial dedication were held to remember and celebrate the lives of the students who perished in the fire, and to recognize the heroism of the teachers, firefighters and community members on that day.

Cleveland Hill Union Free School District Board President Robert Polino began the ceremony by stating, “Today we remember those lives that were so tragically cut short and the lives of those that were forever changed on that terrible day in March of 1954.”

Cleveland Hill Fire Chief Joseph Lewis also said a few words, giving an emotional speech.

“Being a second generation firefighter, I’ve been around the hall all my life,” he said. “In my time, the department has been through many tragic incidents, which have etched unforgettable and haunting images into my memory. Yet, even with all my personal experience, I find it impossible to imagine the horror of the event of March 31, 1954.”

He described the fire and how the Cleveland Hill firefighters had been training that day when they saw black smoke. They didn’t know what was burning but headed that way to find that the school was burning and the annex was heavily involved with fire. All available fire companies in Cheektowaga were called to help and soon, help from the City of Buffalo, Amherst, West Seneca and Lancaster also arrived.

“No one could’ve imagined that this day would bring one of the most tragic events in New York State history,” Lewis added.

He went on to describe the heroism of music teacher Melba Seibold who helped save the lives of many students, while also suffering from burns and injuries, and June Mahaney, a student teacher who broke windows with her fists, cutting her arms and hands, to help get the children to safety. Neighbors even opened their homes to help treat the victims.

“The way the teachers and residents rose up together is truly unbelievable,” added Lewis.

He also explained that “fire codes and safety standards were virtually non-existent” at the time of the fire but that soon changed after the news spread of the tragedy in this community. Fire and life safety codes were added in New York State following the fire in Cheektowaga, but they weren’t changed nationally until tragedy hit a Chicago school in 1958 where 92 children and three nuns perished in a fire.

Lewis added that the outcome of these two devastating school fires are what caused the changes in fire safety nationwide. Fire alarm requirements, sprinklers, building materials and signage were a few of the changes that Lewis listed.

Many other stories were told by members of the class of 1960, relatives of the students who died in the fire, relatives of teachers who were there on that day, along with musical performances by the high school band, Meghan Eckle and Trinity Cooper.

Town of Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary Holtz dedicated the permanent memorial, which is now located in front of the school, remembering those who perished in the fire.

Richard Odien from the class of 1960 then read the names of the students who lost their lives in the fire. Those students were Bruce Brand, Verna H. Bagley, Patricia Blendowski, Marlene DuPont, Michael W. Hause, George Hoffman, Suzanne Jors, Donald Kelleher, Elizabeth Lies, John Mendofik, Marlene Miller, Blaine Poss, Reba J. Smith, Patricia Steger and Barbara Watkins.

While the memorial was previous located where residents couldn’t easily view it, it is now viewable by those who enter and pass by the school.

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