Niagara Gazette

February 19, 2013

BRADBERRY: Out of the fire: Life from the ashes

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It still stands as a record that should never be approached, let alone broken; 15 children and three adults died in the Moonglow Hotel, in the worst fire in Niagara Falls’ history, Nov. 16, 1957. Annie L. Reid, then just 4 years old was pulled from the flames by her sister who found her hiding underneath her crib. Thrown from a second-story window of the dilapidated tenement building, little Annie miraculously survived the fire and lived to write a book about it.

Now 55 years later retired US Marine Corps First Sgt. Annie L. Chivers’ poignant memoir tells the heartbreaking, but inspirational story of one woman’s journey in the aftermath of losing nearly her entire family in one of the worst tragedies in the history of African American’s migration from the back breaking work in the cotton fields and farm life of Pigeon Creek, Alabama and other communities in the Deep South to live and work just as hard in the body breaking factories and farms of Niagara Falls and Western New York. During one of my many trips back home to Niagara Falls after moving away to attend school in 1965, I returned to my old neighborhood with a critical eye 40-some odd years later.

I chronicled my visit, recalling that I paced back and forth, up and down the now one-way Allen and MacKenna avenues, looking for familiar faces, finding instead, tin warehouses and vacant fields where my neighborhood once stood was now empty except for a few new garage-like structures and what looked like lines of tired old trucks, waiting for the rust to reclaim them.

The area, once one populated by small junk yards and immigrant factory workers who settled here from Hitler and Mussolini’s “Old Country” in Europe and Jim Crow’s Deep South, a neighborhood where the otherwise unwanted were forced to live in some kind of harmony on their way toward “Americanization,” now a wasteland.

As though performing the Stations of the Cross, I stopped, looked and listened, acknowledging each place, and each painful or pleasant memory of each person that I could recall. I was communing with the spirits of the once-crowded, lively streets. The loudest voices were those of the children singing, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." I followed their voices to 2449 Allen Ave., where the Moonglow Hotel fire had snatched 18 of my neighbors in the city's worst-ever fire.

As if struck by a bolt of lightning, I began to remember what I had for decades repressed.

What had actually happened here?

It all started with the fire, Nov. 16, 1957; I was 9 years old.

As I recalled, my family was asleep at 2417 Allen Ave. In the back bedrooms, where my sisters and I lay dreaming about the ice cream in the basement freezer next to the shelves of canned peaches and pears, we most likely smiled in our sleep.

One block over, my friends, the Ward kids, Leo, David, Clarence Ward and their sisters, tired from the long day of school and playing were sleeping too, like all the rest of us, dreaming of Thanksgiving and Christmas just ahead.

Meanwhile, at 2449 Allen Ave. at the Moonglow, near the foot of the street, little Howard, Horace, Belinda, Arlene, Gloria Jean, twins Terry and Jerry, tiny 2-month-old Bonnie Patricia and their mother, Mrs. Mary Ewing, were huddled together in their beds, finding each others' warmth against the cold wind that crept in through the cracks in the walls.

In another room slept some of the Reid children, Walter, Carson, Harvey, William, Sanford and 5-month-old Mary Louise.

The furnace in their building was not working correctly that night, according to some.

Next door, Thelma Duncan, Essie Mixon and her children were enjoying the good sleep that comes just before dawn.

Twenty-fourth Street's businesses were quiet too.

A couple of cars probably sat waiting to be fixed at Martin's Gas Station, one on the lift, another still on a jack.

At Mike's Candy Store, the Mary Janes and wax lips sat in their boxes waiting to be taken home for a penny a piece by laughing, jumping kids.

The diamond rings, gold bracelets and Timex watches at Colucci's Jewelry Store were tucked tightly in their velvet-lined boxes, waiting to be released from lay-away in time to be given as Christmas gifts.

Eddie Zewin's Furniture & Appliances was quiet, too, ready for the next day's sales and deliveries.

The beer gardens, hours ago filled with just-paid factory workers, had finally settled down. The aroma of smoked tobacco and spilled beer seeped from beneath the doors, out into the cold night air.

Except for the normal noises of the night, it was quiet.

Across town at the fire station on 53rd Street and Buffalo Avenue, Nolan Curtis, one of the city's first black firemen, was asleep too.

At 4:36 a.m., a fire alarm sounded, and everyone's world was changed forever; he knew the city and his job well, and he knew right away exactly where the fire was.

Gazette reporter Rick Forgione wrote 50 years later on Nov. 16, 2007, Niagara Falls Police Traffic Division Capt. Jack Dietz was on routine patrol when he saw flames bursting out of his son’s building at 2449 Allen Ave.

He quickly called for an alarm, bringing a brigade of firefighters to the three-story tenement structure. Despite their efforts, 18 people, including 15 children were killed inside the blaze — making it, to this day, the deadliest fire in the city’s history.

Dietz’s son, William Dietz was found responsible and convicted of first-degree manslaughter. The notorious distinction cast a dark shadow of regret over the close-knit family, a burden that still exists today.

“Our family has suffered and are haunted by what happened in that fire,” William Dietz’s daughter, Patti Dietz said from her California home. “Every day we remember that fire. It will haunt us all of our lives. My dad never wanted that tragic fire to happen. He never wanted anyone to die.” she told Forgione.

Indicted by a 24-member grand jury Dec. 11, 1957, on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter after the jury heard testimony from 42 people in a probe into the fatal fire conducted by District Attorney William H. Earl, a jury of 10 men and two women in March 1958 convicted Dietz on the first-degree manslaughter charge. Genesee County Judge Philip J. Weiss sentenced Dietz to two to five years at Attica State Prison.

Patti Dietz, who was 7 years old at the time of the fire, said she still doesn’t understand why her father was convicted. She said he didn’t collect rent from the families and only agreed to let them stay there temporarily as an alternative to being homeless during the winter months after Hyde Park Village closed down.

“Those poor people had no place to go,” she said. “My dad was just trying to provide them with shelter and a place to sleep.”

Annie Chivers doesn’t remember much about Nov. 16, 1957, she’s blocked out most of the horrific memories of that fateful day, but what she does remember about life before and after is beautifully told in her short, but powerful memoir, “Out of the Fire: Life from the Ashes.”

She told the Gazette reporter in 2007, “My sister threw me out of the (second floor) window to save my life,” she said. “I remember landing on the ground and it didn’t seem to hurt that much because I landed on my butt and I had my hands behind my back. I remember looking up and seeing flames going all the way to the sky.”

Chivers walked away from the blaze without a scratch. Unfortunately, others in the Reid family weren’t as lucky. Six of her siblings never made it out of the blaze and a seventh died later in the hospital from injuries he sustained. Also, nine members of the Ewing family died, and two other adults, all living in the three-story tenement apartment — bringing the total body count to 18, including 15 children making it the worst fire in Niagara Falls history; history that should never be repeated, and never forgotten.

Her book will be available at the Book Corner at 1801 Main St. in Niagara Falls next week says owner Jeff Morrow.

Annie is planning a book signing there this spring.

Contact Bill at bill.bradberry@yahoo.com