Remembering Cleveland Hill tragedy 60 years later

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) – Sixty years after a tragic fire tore through the Cleveland Hill Annex killing 15 students, the community paused to honor and remember those who lost their lives.

March 31, 1954 a furnace exploded at the Cheektowaga school and spread to a music class with sixth graders.

Bonnie Rowland-Haller was in that class. “It was a loud noise and the teachers said everyone run to the door. I was fairly small and I was the last one. The fire came in the door and we ran to the window. I was fortunate to get out”.

Rowland-Haller and other members of her graduating class of 1960 were at the memorial service at Cleveland Hill High School on Saturday.

Dick Odien recalls a fellow classmate’s account of that tragic day.

“I asked Dennis. I talked to him. He said the day of the fire it was just complete chaos. The building was a wooden building and it went up like a matchbox” said Odien.

Many believe the students died and more were injured because the school windows were too small and wouldn’t open. There was also no school fire alarm directly linked to emergency services.

Families and survivors are happy that codes and regulations have changed because of this tragedy.

A new memorial was unveiled after the remembrance ceremony. The original one was placed in a courtyard that wasn’t open to the public.

Now it sits in the front of Cheektowaga High School for anyone to see. It has the engraved stone from the original memorial.

Now people have a place to reflect and remember those whose lives were tragically cut short and the lives of others that were forever changed.

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