"I HAD TO LEAVE MY LITTLE CHILD TO DIE"
HORRORS AND HAUNTINGS OF THE COLLINWOOD SCHOOL FIRE
Ash Wednesday morning, March 4, 1908, dawned clear and crisp in the town of Collinwood, Ohio. Fritz Hirter, a father of eight and the custodian for the Lake View School, left his home early to walk the short block between his home and the school. He wanted to stoke the basement furnace with coal in plenty of time to get the building warm for the children when they arrived. By 6:30 a.m., he had set to work cleaning the classrooms and sweeping the hallways. Promptly at 8:00 a.m., Hirter opened the doors, admitting the children - among them were four of his own.
The day had begun in much the same way as any other day but this peaceful routine was not to last for long. Within hours, the school would be a blazing death-trap and lead to the deaths of scores of the children who had innocently started their day at their school desks.
Collinwood was a small community of eight thousand citizens located just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. The Lake View School, built in 1901, was an imposing, three-story brick building with an interior made of wood. It was a neighborhood school. Most of the families it served lived within walking distance. On March 4, there were between 310 and 325 children between the ages of five and fifteen in attendance. In the basement, beneath three floors of happy, unsuspecting children and teachers, a malfunctioning furnace was hard at work. The steam pipes running under the first floor became dangerously overheated, so much so that the wooden floor joists ignited from the excessive heat. Thirty short minutes later all that remained of the Lake View School would be a smoking pile of rubble inside a burned-out brick shell.
After the children were settled into their classrooms and the halls and stairways were quiet, Fritz Hirter returned to the school basement. He described what happened next: “I was sweeping in the basement when I looked up and saw a wisp of smoke curling out from beneath the front stairway. I ran to the fire alarm and pulled the gong that sounded the alarm throughout the building. Then I ran to the front and then to the rear doors.” Hirter explained that he had first opened the doors to help the children escape. Unfortunately, air rushing through the school with the doors open only served to increase the intensity of the flames and they were soon closed. He ran to a first-floor classroom and yelled for his five-year-old daughter, Ida, to run home and for the other children to leave immediately.
Hirter said the next moments were confusing. “I cannot remember what happened next, except that I saw the flames shooting all about and the little children running down through them screaming. Some fell at the rear entrance and others stumbled over them. I saw my own little Helena among them. I tried to pull her out, but the flames drove me back. I had to leave my little child to die.”
When the fire alarm rang, the teachers and children first assumed that it was a drill. No one was overly excited and falling into line with their teachers, they quietly headed for the stairways leading to the main doors on the first floor. At first, they marched in an orderly fashion until the children at the head of the lines saw the flames. Order quickly turned to chaos and most of the children either ran screaming headlong into the flames in an attempt to get past them, or they turned to flee back up the stairs and down the narrow halls.
Katherine Weiler, a teacher at Lake View School, was a strong young woman in her mid-twenties. At nearly six feet tall, she was a commanding presence and was known for being a strict but caring teacher, having been raised in Pittsburgh by her father, a German Methodist minister. She had been teaching since she was eighteen.
When her students realized that the fire drill wasn’t a drill at all, Miss Weiler did her best to calm her 39 second grade students as they made their way from their second-floor classroom toward the front stairs. When they saw their way was blocked by flames, they quickly ran to the stairs leading to the rear exit. By the time they got there, they found the narrow staircase and hallway beyond packed with children. As more children arrived, they tried to climb over the pile but only succeeded in wedging themselves in even tighter. She could have left to save herself, but instead she stayed. Katherine Weiler spent her last few minutes trying desperately to pull children free of the tangled pile and relieve the pressure as they tried to force their way toward the rear doors. At some point, she lost her footing and was trampled to death under the building mass of children. She was later heralded as a hero.
The fire started in the basement, just under the staircase leading to the front doors. During fire drills, the children had been trained to go directly to those doors but were never trained to seek another way out if those doors were blocked. When the children reached the foot of the stairs they found the flames already raging up through the floor, blocking the way to the front doors and safety. The rush for the doors was so swift that the children were very quickly packed into a tight mass in the vestibule against the closed doors, which opened inward. The children approaching the foot of the stairs, seeing what was ahead of them, turned and attempted to fight their way back up while those who were coming down forced them back into the flames. From that moment on, there was no hope for the children at the front door and first floor stairs.
After the general fire alarm was sounded, Collinwood Chief of Police Charles McIlrath was among the first to arrive. Even knowing that three of his own children were likely still inside the burning school, Chief McIlrath set to work directing rescuers and firefighters and later containing the thousands who came to help or simply watch, out of morbid curiosity.
Within minutes, hundreds of frantic parents and family members who had heard of the fire arrived at the scene. Their numbers were too vast for the police to hold back. Also arriving to help were a number of men from the nearby train yard and railroad shops at the Lake Shore Rail Yard.
George Getzien, a passerby, ran to the rear doors and, with the aid of police officer Charles Wall, managed to get the doors open but was forced back by the flames and heat. They both said that at that time, there were no children in that area so they ran to the front doors in an attempt to get them open - but to no avail.
Mrs. Walter Kelley, mother of two Lake View students, and an unknown man were among the first parents to reach the building. Mrs. Kelley was trying to open the rear doors and the man came to help her. Pulling and tugging as hard as they could, believing that the doors opened outwards, they could not to get the doors to budge. Unable to find anything with which to break down the door, they abandoned their effort and began smashing windows and pulling children out until the fire became too intense. They were able to save a few children this way.
Rescuers believed that had there been more men trying to force the doors, many more children could have been saved. What they didn’t realize was that by that time, on the other side of those doors, there was a solid mass of children packed in so tightly that there would have been no way possible for the doors to be forced open. Despite previous attempts to open the doors, men from the rail yard “kicked and pounded on the solid wood doors until their fists were bloody.”
Eventually, the rear doors collapsed from the weight of the children, exposing a horrifying sight: a solid wall of children, all white faces and struggling bodies. Fritz Hirter, the custodian, was still in the building. He was able to save several children by tossing them through windows as he made his way out, in an attempt to pull them away from the doorway from the inside. Though his face and hands were scorched black, he continued pulling children from the pile until he could save no more. He fled the building at the last second, as more children were shoved onto the pile that was now over six feet high.
As the flames grew closer and closer to the children, rescuers tried everything to untangle them and pull them free of the pile, but none could be saved. Eventually, the heat drove the rescuers back, and they were forced to watch helplessly as their children were engulfed in flames.
Two of Police Chief McIlrath’s children, seven-year-old Benson and nine-year-old Viola May, who had been burned about her head and had lost her hair to fire, were among the children who found their way out of the building. However, his oldest son, ten-year-old Hugh, was lost in the fire but he died a hero’s death. Several witnesses, including his father, described Hugh’s actions that day. He was seen leading a number of younger children down the fire escape, but when they got to the bottom they saw it was a long jump to the grass. Frightened of the distance, a few ran back into the building. Hugh followed them in an attempt to bring them back out but a wall of flames appeared before he could do so and he was never seen alive again.
When the front doors finally gave way, people saw an awful scene, similar to the one at the rear doors: a wall of children. This time however, most of the children were already dead. Wallace Upton, a father who had been helping the police and firefighters, realized that his own ten-year-old daughter was caught near the bottom of the pile. She was badly burned and had been trampled, but she was still alive. He tried with all his strength to tear her from the pressing weight as the flames moved ever closer, but he was unable to free her. He continued until most of his clothes were reduced to ashes and he was severely burned himself. Despite his serious injuries, he could not be persuaded to get medical attention for several more hours.
The Collinwood Fire Department was made up entirely of volunteers, many of them quite inexperienced. They had difficulty getting everything in order and were slow in getting to the building. When they finally arrived, they found their firefighting apparatus to be sorely inadequate. Lacking in water pressure, the water stream was not even strong enough to reach the second story windows. In addition, they didn’t possess a ladder long enough to reach the third floor. The firefighters did all they could, but in the end, they had very little effect on the outcome.
In very short order, there was little need for fighting the fire. Most of it had burned out within the first thirty minutes. All that was left to water down were smoldering embers, making it safer for volunteers to remove the children’s remains. This was a fairly dangerous task. The only thing left standing was the outer brick shell of the building. The walls had lost most of their internal supports and were in imminent danger of collapsing. Fortunately, the walls remained standing until after the victims were taken from the ruins.
Removal of the bodies was done by the firefighters and the railroad workers from the Lake Shore shop. It was a gruesome task as they pulled blackened torsos and bits of human remains from the site. The rescuers formed a line and as each body was untangled from the debris, it was passed down the line to a stretcher. After each body was covered with a blanket, they were carried to one of the dozen waiting ambulance wagons. A nearby railroad shop was used as a makeshift morgue. As each ambulance was filled with victims, the remains were carried to the morgue and unloaded so that the ambulance might make a return trip for another load as quickly as possible.
As the bodies arrived at the morgue, they were laid out in rows of ten. There were sixteen rows. Many of the little bodies had fallen to pieces as they were removed from the debris making identification even harder. The scene at the morgue was sorrowful as parents and family members walked the rows of the dead searching for their lost children. Families were allowed into the morgue ten at a time, giving them ample time and space to find their loved ones in peace.
The painstaking identification process began. In the end, each of the missing was found and identified except for nineteen children and one teacher, Katherine Weiler. Some of them were thought to have burned to ashes - ashes that would remain in the ruins of the school. Many authorities believed that several mistaken identifications had taken place, but often the children were buried before the blunders could be corrected.
In the end, 172 children lost their lives as a result of the Lake View School fire. Two teachers were also lost, Grace Fiske and Katherine Weiler, whose body was never recovered. A rescuer was also lost. John Krajnyak, one of the first people to respond, last seen running into the burning building in an attempt to rescue children, had been missing since the fire. However, it was not known that he had given his life until his body was recovered from the debris.
With a need to find someone or something to blame, whispers and rumors started to rumble amongst the townspeople and grieving parents. With no evidence at all, the blame was first laid at the doorstep of Fritz Hirter, the school’s custodian. Soon after the fire was extinguished, a crowd of nearly five hundred people gathered outside his home and a contingent of police were called upon to protect him and his family. By the second day, however, when the Hirter family emerged from the house, along with three small coffins bearing the remains of his own children lost in the fire, hearts were softened and the crowd dispersed without incident. Walter, Helena and Ida Hirter were found huddled together on the second floor. It was later determined that Mr. Hirter bore no fault in the cause or spread of the fire.
The Collinwood Board of Trade and the town council each approved $5,000 to help families without the means to bury their dead. The town of Collinwood had planned to buy a field in which to bury all or most of the victims of the fire during a public funeral. However, after many families chose private burials, the town instead purchased a large plot in the Lake View Cemetery that would serve as a mass grave for the unidentified remains. Several children from poor families unable to pay for a funeral were to be interred there, as well. White coffins were purchased for the bodies going into this plot and white ribbons were placed on the doors of each family who had lost someone in the fire. A canvas of victims’ families was conducted, identifying needs, and thousands of dollars worth of coal and groceries were distributed.
On March 6, the people of Collinwood began to bury their dead. An average of four funerals, some for multiple family members, were held every hour from sunrise to sunset and continued for three days. There were not enough funeral carriages available so many had to use wagons and even streetcars to transport the small coffins to the various cemeteries and churchyards. The last private funerals were held on March 8, a Sunday.
Monday was the day set aside for the memorial service and public funeral that was held in the Lake View Cemetery. The white coffins were placed side by side in a shallow arc with numerous white wreathes and huge arches of white flowers adorning the site. Thousands of people came to mourn the passing of so many young and innocent souls.
A movement was started to collect money from Cleveland area school children to pay for the erection of a monument dedicated to the memory of the lost children and teachers. The plan was broadened to include all the schools in northern Ohio, with each child asked to donate one penny. Word of the fund spread and soon envelopes containing pennies were arriving from schools from all over the country.
Collinwood needed a new school. The site chosen for it was next to where the Lake View School had stood. Several grieving parents tried to stop the plan and find a different location for the new school. They said they could not bear the thought of their younger children attending school next to where the ashes of their brothers or sisters lay. However, construction began on the chosen site and the school was completed in 1910. The school was named Collinwood Memorial.
To further memorialize the tragic loss of life, a public garden was built on the site of the fire. The garden contains a lovely lawn area with trees and plantings, benches and peaceful walkways. There is a large memorial in the garden. Around the sides of the memorial are 175 tiles, each inscribed with the name of someone who died in the fire.
Fritz Hirter continued working for the school system as a custodian until he retired at age 70. He rarely spoke of the fire. He passed away at the age of 96.
The devastating loss of life in the Lake View School fire was truly tragic but as often happens, there was some good that came of it. The fire not only touched the hearts of a mourning nation, it also caught its attention. Public awareness for fire safety and prevention was vastly increased leading to safer building and improved fire codes. Cities and towns all across the United States instituted inspections of schools, theaters, nickelodeons and public buildings. Most were requiring the installation of exit doors that swing outward, noncombustible exterior fire escapes and in some cases additional fire escapes. It is impossible to determine how many lives were saved because of these changes.
Over one hundred families lost children on that terrible day in March. Sometime after the fire, families began talking softly amongst themselves about strange things happening in their homes. Several of them described catching brief glimpses of their lost children or hearing their voices from another room then finding no one there when they went to look. They never knew if their children returned to them to say goodbye or as a comfort. Over time, the visits became less frequent.
The Collinwood Memorial School was closed in the 1970s and remained abandoned for decades. The old school had developed a reputation for being haunted. Neighbors who live near the school have told of often seeing a light appear in a window on the second story in the old building. The light would slowly move along the halls then disappear. This light was seen many times by many people over the years but no “natural” cause has ever been determined.
As the building had been abandoned for so long and the neighborhood around the school had deteriorated over time, few people have taken the opportunity to wander through the building at night to investigate the haunting. However, an intrepid few who dared to do so reported a sudden onset of chills and cold spots and occasionally, they said they heard the faint sounds of screaming children.
People walking through the memorial garden, located on the actual site of the school fire, have told of smelling the strong odor of smoke in the area. This smoky smell occasionally becomes a putrid stench, so strong that it drives visitors from the garden.
In 2003, the memorial garden was rededicated. In 2004, the Collinwood Memorial School was demolished. A brand new school, also named the Memorial School, now stands at the site to serve the area’s children. Only time will tell if the children from so long ago will return, again, to this new school named in their memory.