It was not easy facing eviction, but as fate would have it, the owner of a tenement building called the Moonglow Hotel opened up rooms for the housing projects evictees. It was a run-down three-story structure with a basement. The building was riddled with problems such as faulty heating, broken windows, and seepage. In fact, it had been designated for condemnation about twenty years before in 1937. However, we settled into rooms on the second floor making it our home in November of 1956.
One year later, life had resumed and we even added another member to the family. My baby sister Mary Louise was born in May of 1957. Now there were eleven children – six boys and five girls. Life was as normal as could be expected in that setting until early on the morning of November 16 that year. My father woke up to the smell of smoke and to the sound of people frantically shouting from below telling him to jump or else be “burned alive.”
My mother had reached the girls’ room and awakened my oldest sister, Lila, telling her to go my brothers’ room for them. She then told my next oldest sister, Lucille, to grab the baby and me and follow her, Lila, and my third oldest sister, Clodine out. Lucille ran over to the crib, but found that Mary Louise had suffocated to death. She called my name, but after I did not answer, she assumed that I was dead and turned around to leave. At the door, something made her stop, turn around and go back to the crib. She dropped down to her knees, looked under it and found me cowering there in fear. She pulled me out and ran to get back to my mother. However, my mother and sisters had not been able to reach my brothers due to a wall of fire when they opened the door to the exit.
My mother knew that we were heading toward certain death if we continued to my brothers’ room. With dismay in her heart, she turned us around and headed into the community bathroom where there was a small window. My mother began pushing us out of that window, all the while pleading for someone below to “get my babies.” Unfortunately, no one could save her babies. In a matter of minutes all six of her sons and her five-month-old baby daughter were dead.
One other family who lived on the third floor suffered a tragic loss as well. Mr. Ewing was able to jump from a window, but his wife and all eight of his children did not make it out. None of his children had reached the age of ten. Two other adults living on the third floor died in the fire; they were caretakers of the building. This brought the number of deaths to eighteen – historically the largest loss of life by house fire in Niagara Falls.
The hours following the fire were tumultuous to say the least. We escaped with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We were forced to live in a homeless shelter for about a month. I could sense the bleakness in that place, especially since I had to spend Christmas there. Eventually the Niagara Falls Housing Authority did allow us into Griffon Manor – the same place that my father had been denied access to the year before because he had too large of a family. How ironic.
Today, I still think about the fire. Even though I was only four years old, I remember the feelings of hopelessness afterward. I can still picture my mother sitting at the kitchen table sobbing uncontrollably. I would crawl into her lap and beg her not to cry, and in response, she would wrap her arms around me and continue weeping.
My mother died one year after the fire. The cause of death was cancer of the liver, but neither her heart nor her body was ever able to heal. To this day, I weep for her and for the six brothers and baby sister that I lost so long ago.