Talking Proud Archives --- Culture

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

By Ed Marek, editor
Class of 1962 Cleveland Hill School System

Editor's note: We continue to receive memoirs and I am posting them as I receive them in the last section, the Memoirs section. The most recent new posting is from Leni Beris Dwyer, April 1, 2014

Editor’s note: I regret to inform you that on Mrs. June Mahaney Hiller died on November 8, 2015 in Mahopac, New York. She was 82. She was a student teacher working with Mrs. Seibold in the classroom at Cleveland Hill where the fire took its greatest toll. Bonnie Rowland Haller, a student in the classroom, said this:

"It was a loud explosion. The teacher (Mrs. Seibold) told everyone to run to the door, but I was in the back. I was one of only two students who did not get burned. I was small, and the student teacher (Ms. Mahaney) was able to break a window.”

Cheektowaga Times reported on April 1, 1954 Ms. Mahaney's recollection of the fire:

"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. Seibold saw the flames, she hollered, ‘Break the windows.!’ I rushed to the windows. So did Mrs. Seibold 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.”

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

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.

August 24, 2009 updated June 2, 2015 in Memoirs

Editor's note: We continue to receive memoirs and I am posting them as I receive them in the last section, the Memoirs section.

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

On April 2, 2006, I wrote an article entitled, "Teachers, students, neighbors rising to great acts of heroism, the tragedies of deadly school fires." One of the fires I discussed was the Cleveland Hill Elementary School fire of March 1954, in Cheektowaga, New York, a suburb of Buffalo.

This fire holds great meaning for me because I was in 4th grade --- I was in it. Thankfully, I managed to escape unhurt.

Nearly a year after I wrote that article, I began asking people through various social networks to forward their memoirs of that fire. This was tougher than I thought, as many were reluctant to rekindle those terrible memories and write them down. But many did, and I want to present their memoirs 55 years after the event.

I'll do this in two sections:

The fire and its aftermath: I'll draw from my original article referenced above to describe the fire and its aftermath.

The memoirs: People can add to what I present whenever they are so moved.