Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2017.

Turning Point

The Moonglow Hotel Fire of 1957—Niagara Falls, New York

BY ANGELO VERZONI

It was the fire that forever changed the city of Niagara Falls.

Early on the morning of November 16, 1957, a blaze engulfed the run-down and condemned Moonglow Hotel, which had served as a makeshift home for two large families. The fire killed 16 members of the families—13 of the victims were under the age of 12—and two single men who lived at the property.

Firefighters and other witnesses described how quickly and intensely the building burned. “The place was all aglow,” Nolen Curtis, a Niagara Falls firefighter at the time, told The Niagara Gazette in 2007. “You couldn’t even get near the place it was such an inferno.”

“I could see kids jumping out of the windows and getting killed,” Charles Mixon, who was a child living next door at the time, told the newspaper, adding that the rapid fire spread didn’t surprise him. “It was a deathtrap waiting to happen. It caught fire like paper.”

The youngest survivor, four-year-old Annie Reid, miraculously lived after her sister threw her from a second-story window. Now Annie Chivers, she wrote a memoir of the fire, Out of the Fire: Life from the Ashes, in 2013. “The pain of that event still brings tears to my eyes,” she writes. “I am jolted out of a sound sleep at times from the sensation of falling from a second-story window. I still see those flames lighting up the pre-dawn sky when I close my eyes...”

The cause of the blaze was never released, but two days after the fire, the Associated Press reported that investigators initially said it was triggered by an explosion in an oil furnace. AP also said investigators were slated to give lie-detector tests to several people and present all evidence to a grand jury.

The property reportedly lacked heat, forcing tenants to use kerosene heaters; windows were nailed shut, and the hallways were crowded with debris. In March 1958, the landlord was convicted of first-degree manslaughter for “culpable negligence in maintaining the building in violation of multiple housing laws,” according to The Buffalo News, and served about 18 months in prison, Chivers told the newspaper in June. She said she planned to go back to Niagara Falls in November to mark the 60th anniversary of the fire.

Local historian William Bradberry, who grew up playing with the Ewing and Reid children and was nine when the fire struck, called the event a “turning point” for the city in an interview with The Buffalo News. Like countless other African-Americans, the families had moved north from the Deep South in search of a better life—which, for many, proved elusive. “People could no longer deny reality,” he said. “It was after the fire that the housing authority began to take seriously the need to do slum clearance.” It seemed to work. To this day, there has never been another fire in Niagara Falls as deadly as the Moonglow Hotel fire.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: G. Butler