Karen Sampson Hoffman

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Moore, Okla., and Cleveland Hill, N.Y - A tale of two school disasters

Posted on May 23, 2013 at 9:30 PM

On Monday, May 20, a tornado hit Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. Seventy-five children and their teachers hunkered down in hallways and bathrooms, with books over their heads, the loving words of their teachers and a community’s prayers attempting to shelter them.

Seven children died when the tornado took the roof off the school. One little girl described it as looking up and seeing the sky as a brown swirl.

In the days since that horrible moment the question asked over and over again is why weren’t these children in the basement? In a school in a Great Plains state, why weren’t they taken down to a storm cellar?

The answer, to this Western New York girl, is enough to make your stomach sick: The school didn’t have them. They are considered too expensive to build. In tornado alley, they are not required by law.

“Most of the schools in Oklahoma do not have shelters. It's because of the cost,” Moore Mayor Glen Lewis told CNN. “The new ones that were hit in the 1999 tornado, they do have built-in shelters.”

I cannot imagine not having the storm cellar. I cannot imagine a school not prepared for a disaster. I cannot imagine that the adults of the community put dollars before the safety of children.

I am a graduate of a New York State schools. I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo and we all knew the story of the school that burned and the children who died. I started kindergarten in 1978, 24 years after a coal dust explosion in the wooden annex of the Cleveland Hill Elementary School became the fire that changed how all schools in New York State would be built, most especially the windows.

How could they not know to build storm cellars where there are tornados? But there was a time when the windows of schools were like the windows of factories, small panes of glass between metal support brackets. It took that fire to make New York State rethink windows in schools and offices.

On March 24, 1954, every fire alarm in the Cleveland Hill hamlet of Cheektowaga, just outside of the city of Buffalo, sounded. The alarms started to ring in nearby Snyder, where my mother and her family lived, and rang throughout Cheektowaga and Amherst.

My mom described it to me this way: The alarms rang through the neighborhoods and fire trucks rushed down Main Street, which is at the foot of the street where she and her family lived. Everything was in commotion and my grandmother heard that “the school was on fire.” She ran down the street with her neighbors, too far away to see more than smoke from the direction of Cleveland Hill Elementary but close enough to my mother’s school in the other direction to know that her children were safe.

My former brother-in-law's mother was one of the students caught in the fire. I was told that she still has scars from the burns she received that day. She has never worn a bathing suit out of worry that people will see those scars.

Many years later, my mom was a teacher at this same school. The location of the wooden annex building is now a parking lot with a near-by plaque remembering the fire and the children. By accident of fate, I have stood on the site where those children died.

Coal dust had collected in the space above the classrooms of the music annex and the air became superheated due to a faulty furnace. The coal dust exploded in the trapped airspace and burned, setting the wooden annex on fire and trapping a classroom of students.

The teachers broke the glass in the windows with their hands and the older students shoved the smallest ones through the small frames. Some students managed to run past the flames and into the main school and parking lot.

The picture below is during the fire, while firefighters work to put out the flames. Look at that window below and I will tell you what the photographer didn’t know at that moment:


Children were dying below that window right then because they couldn’t get out.

Ten children died in that fire. Five more died from their burns during the next week.

New York State collectively said never again would children die in a school fire because the windows would not open. The law changed regarding school windows and is strictly enforced:

NYS Education law regarding windows:
(6) Required emergency egress windows shall be of a size and design, including hardware and, in appropriate instances, steps or ladder to high sills, that will permit and facilitate emergency egress. Such windows shall be free of obstructing screens or storm sash.
(i) The minimum clear opening area for such windows shall be six square feet, with a minimum dimension of 24 inches, unless otherwise approved by the commissioner.
(ii) At least one such window in each space of pupil occupancy shall be marked with an appropriate sign identifying it as an emergency egress window.


Now it is 2013 and seven children have died from a tornado in an area that was flattened in 1999 from a “monster tornado.” Yet the school did not have a shelter, either above or below ground.

I’m not a resident of Oklahoma, but I do hope that this will be the moment when their state, the people of that state, come together and say, “No more children will died in tornados.” New York knew that no matter how good the fire code, there will be more school fires. But the windows will open and the children will escape. Oklahoma has to know that there will be more tornados – the other Plains states must know the same thing – but they can make sure their children are in below or above ground shelters made to withstand tornados.

We lost 15 children because the windows didn’t open. Oklahoma has lost seven because there was no safe place to go. New York learned. This is Oklahoma’s, and every other state with severe weather risks, opportunity to learn and do better. Every school must have shelters, without exception.

Categories: Ponderings

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