The neighborhood never forgets

90 years after infamous blaze, ceremony is tribute to Lakeview victims

Staff Writer
October 8, 1998

On March 4, 1908, the worst school fire in American history consumed Lakeview Elementary School in Collinwood, taking the lives of 172 children, two teachers, and one local resident.

Ninety years later, all the survivors of the fire have since passed away, but the memory of that horrible day lives on.

Sunday, the community came together for the third annual Ecumenical Prayer Service, commemorating the school fire.

The service took place at the site of the old school, at East 152nd Street and Lucknow Avenue. Today, the property is made up of Memorial Elementary School, built after the fire but now twenty years vacant, and the Memorial Garden, a living memorial to the tragedy re-established three years ago.

Ann Coan, president of Northeast Shores Development Corporation, the organization responsible for constructing the new Memorial Garden, said the turnout was pretty good.

"The weather may have held a few people back," Coan said. "(The ceremony) was very nice."

Among those who took part in the ceremony or were in attendance Sunday were Cleveland Fire Chief Kevin Gerrity, Ward 11 Councilman Michael Polensek, many local religious leaders, and area historians, including Ed "Sonny" Kern, author of "The Collinwood School Fire of 1908."

Pastor Andy Jacob of Immanuel Presbyterian Church led the procession from St. Jerome's Church to the Memorial Garden. The Revs. Anthony Cassese and Thomas Haren of St. Jerome's took part in the Call to Worship and Benediction, respectively. Pastor James B. F. Roary of the Greater Hope Full Gospel Baptist Church led the gathering in prayer.

The ceremony also included the reading of the names of each person who died in the tragic fire. Meg McGarry, Pat Adams, and Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Norman Fuerst took turns reading the names of those who perished.

At the memorial, Alesha and Natasha Konskey placed a wreath at its base. The Konskeys, both sixth-grade students at St. Jerome's Elementary School, are great-great nieces of one of the students who died in the fire, Harvey Reeves, who was a second-grader at Lakeview when the tragedy occured.

On that fateful day, a fire started in the basement of the seven-year old Lakeview Elementary building. The wooden building was soon engulfed in flames as the fire bell was sounded.

At the sound of the bell and the realization that this was no drill, the children inside the building panicked and rushed down the stairs to the only fire escape, located at the bottom of the back stairway. As the kids rushed the doors, they were unable to get out because the doors opened inward.

The children at the front could not move back to allow for the doors to open because more children were right behind them trying to escape the raging fire. Some of the children and teachers who did get out went back inside to try and rescue the others. Parents of the trapped children tried to get them out, but could only watch in horror as the flames eventually reached the heap of humanity at the doors and killed them.

Less than a year later, Memorial Elementary School was built adjacent to where Lakeview once stood, and on March 9, 1909, the state General Assembly declared the property be forever dedicated as a memorial park in memory of those who perished in the fire.

The memorial garden on the site was maintained until Memorial Elementary was closed in the 1970s. When that happened, the property turned into a vacant lot and few people tended to the garden.

However, 10 years ago, area businessman Peter Oroz purchased the building and grounds. He turned around and granted a 99-year lease to the Waterloo Trade and Development Corporation, now known as Northeast Shores Development Corporation, to reconstruct a Memorial Garden.

Today, the garden stands prominently on the site where the tragedy took place. The memorial is a 50-foot by 30-foot raised plateau with brown sandstone pavers surrounding it along with hundreds of plants and over two dozen small trees.

© Copyright 1998 Sun Newspapers, Cleveland, Ohio

Go to Sun Newspapers home page