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Arts & Culture

New book recalls deadly school fire of 70 years ago

A book standing on a table. The book title is "Built to Burn: The Cleveland Hill School Fire"
Dallas Taylor | WBFO
Buffalo broadcasting legend John Zach's latest is "Built to Burn: The Cleveland Hill School Fire." It recalls the tragedy of March 31,1954, in which 15 children died and 19 others were injured.

The work hasn't stopped for Buffalo radio icon John Zach. No longer arriving at the studio before 3 a.m. to prepare the morning news, he's now busy writing books. His latest is "Built to Burn: The Cleveland Hill School Fire." It recalls the tragedy of March 31,1954, in which 15 children died and 19 others were injured.

"I tried to do my best to set the record straight," Zach shared with WBFO. He says after 70 years, "stories, they become embellished. They change. Sometimes, important data is misplaced. Sometimes it's ignored."

Seven decades may have passed, but the details remain disturbing. A fire broke out in a classroom in the wooden annex at Cleveland Hill school. "These children shouldn't even been in that room. They should have been in the big, brand new building."

Such annexes, Zach says, were common in the region and throughout New York State. The presence of a malfunctioning coal-fired furnace provided "a frightening confluence of everything that could possibly go wrong."

When the fire broke out, the classroom was under siege almost immediately. Three adults tried to break open windows to clear a path to safety. Many were injured by shards of glass as they squeezed out of the room.

Only 14 when the tragedy occurred, Zach admits he has little recollection of the event. It was in 2004, upon the 50th anniversary of the fire when his interest grew. He interviewed some of the survivors to produce five, 90-second radio stories. However, there was more to discover and share.

As he researched for the book, he began sifting through accounts from newspapers out of Buffalo, Syracuse and Washington, D.C. Freedom of Information requests were made. The result is a detailed account of the catastrophic loss.

"The tragedy eventually led to wholesale changes in school building construction codes across New York State and the rest of America," Zach writes.

"Nearly, three generations later, this event--a terrible fire of unthinkable proportions--has largely, and understandably, been forgotten."

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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.