March 31, 2014 marks the 60 years since the Cleveland Hill School Fire which claimed the lives of fifteen sixth-grade children and injured 19 others. It was one of the worst school fires in New York State history, and resulted in a nationwide reflection of school building construction requirements.
On March 31, 1954, an undetected fire burned through the walls and tore through the corridor of the wood-framed, one-story, eight-room annex of the ClevelandHill School, causing panic among students and faculty.
With the corridor impassible, courageous teachers immediately sprang into action, directing children to break through school windows with any items available nearby. The teachers then began to lift children out of the windows, allowing most to escape to safety. Sadly, some windows were either too small to fit through or simply would not open, creating a devastating situation for the sixth grade class of Mr. Thomas Griffin, who were attending music class with Mrs. Melba Seibold.
Mrs. Seibold heroically saved 24 children from the fire, and in the process endured severe burns, suffered smoke inhalation, and broke several vertebrae while jumping out the window. Tragically, fifteen children were unable to escape and perished in the blaze. Among the children lost were; they were: Bruce Brand, Verna Bagley, Marlene Dupont, Michael Hause, Elizabeth Lies, John Mendofik, Blain Poss, Reba Smith, Patricia Steger, Barbara Watkins, Patricia Blendowski, Donald Kelleher, Marlene Miller, Suzanne Jors and George Hoffman.
The heroic action of Mrs. Siebold, her colleagues and other students resulted in the survival of 1,650 students and 150 faculty members, while firefighters bravely rushed into the inferno with no regard for their own safety
It was a tragic day in our history, but it ultimately led to important changes that have undoubtedly saved lives.
In the aftermath of the Cleveland Hill School Fire, many changes were made to increase the safety of school buildings. There was a national movement away from wooden-framed school buildings, and today in New York State, regulations require rescue windows in classrooms to have a minimum 6-square-foot opening.