The Village News Columns: Local History


March 8, 1963 Remembered- The Bellport High School Fire


The following article appeared in the June, 1963 issue of Fire Engineering magazine, who has graciously given permission to include it here. It was written by James F. Casey. The photos, as noted, were taken by Bill Cummings and World Wide photos.

Based upon a personal interview with Chief Robert Terwilliger, Bellport Volunteer Fire Department, with the assistance of Suffolk County Fire Coordinator Lloyd Case.

Special Note from Bob Wallen:

"All of us at Wallen’s would like everyone to step back in time to March 8, 1963. Many of you will recognize this date immediately. Others will have heard about it. And still others will find no particular significance to the date. That was the date of the Bellport School Fire.

An entire school building was reduced to ruins. Miraculously, no lives were lost. Volunteer fire fighters, school staff, emergency response teams, BMH medical staff, the Suffolk Country Police Department, and scores of volunteers who rushed to the scene helped avoid an even greater tragedy.
Take a moment, in your own private way, whether with a prayer or a kind thought, and say “thank you” to all of these people."

-Bob Wallen & Staff



HIDDEN FIRE which spread undetected through a hanging ceiling at Bellport High School, Long Island, N.Y., on March 8, finally burst out as a fierce blaze which consumed most of the older section of the school and sent 47 rescued students to hospitals. The near-disaster occurred shortly before 2:00 p.m. on a Friday, with more than 900 students in class.

Bellport High School consists of a recently erected, modern, two-story concrete and steel building and an older brick and joist section erected in 1929 - both connected by an enclosed walkway. The older section was divided into three parts: A one-story that was connected in an "L" shape to a one-story auditorium that in return butted into a two-story school. A hallway serviced the side and rear of the auditorium and gym, and a center hallway serviced classrooms on both sides of each floor in the school area, with stairways on the north and south ends. Ceilings in the gym and auditorium were hung by bow-string roof trusses that left a large, open, connected area over both rooms. Cause and exact location has not been determined, but it was in this hidden area that the fire apparently started.


Fire In Hanging Ceiling

First to discover the fire was a group of girls walking through the unoccupied auditorium who saw flame curling along the ceiling. Fleeing, they ran through the adjacent corridor where they found the school's principal, Thomas Feeny, who sounded the interior alarm and notified the Bellport volunteers by phone. On hearing the alarm, Paul Laterza, custodian, in the cellar beneath the audi­torium at the time, ran upstairs and closed the roll-down fire door which separated the old building from the new at the walkway. Students in the new building began a quiet and orderly evacuation of their classes that came off without incident; but for the ones in the older section it was a different story. According to spectators, within seconds the gym and auditorium were a roaring mass of flame and dense black smoke threatened the classrooms. Fortunately, a stout brick wall prevented the fire from going directly into the school building. However, smoke and heat were so intense that the combination pushed through the auditorium doors and mushroomed throughout the building. In addition, flame, eating under the floor of the auditorium communicated to two utility and vent shafts in the hall and then upward to the cockloft over the second floor.




Fire attacked older section of Bellport, L. I., school, routed 900 students in session and sent 47 of them plus a teacher and two fire fighters to local hospitals. Damage was estimated at $500,000. New wing at lower left suffered no loss. - Wide World photo


Despite severe conditions, students and instructors on the first floor and those who took the north stairs on the second floor made it safely to the street. Unhappily, a group of some 50 students who started down the south stairs either panicked or found fire conditions too much. Halfway down the double-run stair the leading ones hesitated, stopped and then dashed back up, ignoring the urgings of the teachers. The teachers, Joseph Raberge and Richard Hall, managed to lead some of them into a corner class­room (see illustration) which was relatively free of heat and smoke, there to await the arrival of the fire fighters. But about 20 others, seeing daylight at the end of the hall, headed for this supposed zone of safety. 



Fire destroyed gym and auditorium and caused heavy damage to classrooms and roof in center of second floor.



Smoke and heat meanwhile had banked down toward floor level. Some children collapsed and the panic was on as they pressed toward the fresh air coming through the window. A few jumped but the others held back, with those in the rear collapsing one by one. Such were the conditions that greeted Bellport volunteers as they rolled in.


Chute Improvised With Ladders

"We were lucky - lucky in a lot of ways," said Chief Robert Terwilliger. "To begin with, we got a big response of men considering the time of day. And the very first piece of apparatus that rolled in was a city service truck loaded with ladders."

Two ladders went up in a flash to the window in the hallway, and others up against the side of the classroom, including extension ladders and painters' ladders rushed to the scene by quick-thinking neighbors. Chief Terwilliger was one of the first up the ladders to the hall window and saw to his horror "a bunch of kids piled up on the floor with arms and legs sticking out like a pile of cordwood." He and another fireman literally pulled the window out of its frame - sash, glass and all - creating a clear opening for rescue, and started passing the kids down.




City service truck fortunately was first to arrive on scene carrying ladders shown here. Photo shows last of more than 30 students trapped in second-floor classroom being re­moved. - Photo by Bill Cummings



The smoke by now was boiling out of the top of the window and a masked fireman went in on the floor to accelerate things. Other quick-thinking fire­men - Chief Terwilliger doesn't even recall who - remembered that the ladder truck carried a big "tarp" used for covering it. They manufactured an improvised chute on the spot by tying the upper corners of the tarpaulin to a ladder on each side of the window. With a number of husky firemen and students holding the lower corners, conscious and unconscious students were slid down the chute and out into waiting ambulances. At the same time, students who had retreated to the classroom got out safely, either by ladders, or by being hung out the window by the teachers and then dropped to the ground. A head count had im­mediately been instituted by Mr. Feeney and there was reasonable assurance that all students were at least out of the building. Taking no chances, Chief Terwilliger had his men search the building as far as humanly possible.




Fire fighters employed improvised tarpaulin chute to rescue 17 students trapped in corridor behind window. Masked volunteers went in on floor and carried conscious and un­conscious children to window where they were slid to safety. - Photo by Bill Cummings



Mutual Aid Tells

With the problem of rescue out of the way, Chief Terwilliger now turned his attention and efforts to the fire. In the neighborhood when the alarm was turned in, he had immediately called for the mutual aid disaster plan to be put in effect. It brought a heavy response from the Brookhaven Town Ambulance Association, plus fire fighting units from the following towns: Patchogue, an aerial; Brookhaven, two pumpers; Hageman, one pumper; Yaphank, one pumper; and Medford. While these units were getting into action - organizing relays, laying lines for ladder pipes, and stretching hand lines - the chief realized that the magnitude of the fire plus the severe exposure of the new school required additional help. A request then went to Lloyd Case, Suffolk County coordinator, at the control center in Yaphank, asking for more companies. As a result, five more departments responded to the scene, including an elevating platform from Westhampton Beach, and five others rolled on covering assignments.

First lines were stretched to cover the exposed walkway and the new school, and additional lines were then placed over and around the perimeter of the fire. Some time after the rescues were made the bow-string ceiling trusses in the gym and auditorium collapsed, materially assisting both in ventilating and enabling the fire fighters to get at the flames. A more stubborn problem was the fire in the cockloft and classrooms on the second floor. This area was untenable and had to be fought with outside lines and when a section of the roof partially collapsed it placed a many layered shield of roofing tar between hose streams and fire.

To solve the problem Chief Terwilliger brought in a bucket crane that dug into the debris, deposited it on the street and eventually permitted hosemen to get in on the floor. When this was accomplished the fire was for all practical purposes under control. The search for hidden sparks went on into the night and through the next day, when the last units took up, leaving watch lines behind.


Lessons Learned

Several lessons can be drawn from this fire:

First is the importance of mutual aid. A well-organized and efficiently operated mutual aid plan can bring apparatus and men quickly to the scene of a major fire in numbers which do justice to a large city.

Second is the importance of the school teacher in safety and fire prevention programs. The courage and quick thinking of the teachers of Bellport High probably saved many lives and it would be well for fire chiefs everywhere to establish liaison not only with school officials but with teachers within schools as a form of mutual aid.

Third, training pays off not only sharpening the standard skills required of a fire fighter but in sharpening his senses for improvising in an unexpected situation such as the Bellport men did with the chute.

Last, but by no means least, hidden or remote areas in public buildings, particularly schools, should be protected by sprinklers or fire-detecting devices. Had such devices been available at Bellport, it is possible that 47 children, a teacher and two firemen might not have been hospitalized and a fine school facility not been destroyed. 




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3/10/2016, Diana Tebaldi wrote...

I was, as many of my friends who have written in, in 3rd grade at Kreamer St. School when the fire broke out. I remember looking out of the classroom window at the high school from my desk thinking, "that cant be the smoke from the school chimney, that's a lot!" Funny, even as a child, you know when something's not right. The next thing we knew, a helicopter was landing on the school field. We were also detained at school, until we were able to be picked up. Years later, at my job at Sears in Patchogue, I met someone, who we had all heard through the years, had to unfortunately jump out of the high school widow. He broke his knees, but fortunately was ok. His name I believe was Dave, and was so glad to meet him, and know he made it through ok, and I believe he had a business in Bellport.

Thank God no lives were lost. And Thank you, again, to all who helped.



3/8/2016, Dave Hannon wrote...

I was eight years old and I remember going home early due to the fire. I remember worrying about my older Brothers and if they were safe or not.

That night, My Mom and Dad took me and my Brother John down to the scene. I remember that I could not believe the scene of the walls just hanging over and the fire fighters still pouring water on the hot spots and all of the hoses. I am so glad everyone got out safely, I know God was watching over Bellport High School that fateful day. Hello Bellport!



1/30/2015, Fred Krebs wrote...

I do remember March 8, 1963. My sisters were in 10th and 12th grade. I was at Kreamer Street next to the High School. Grumman sent a helicopter to help. It landed on the grass in the middle of the two schools. I enjoyed reading each person’s stories.



3/18/2013, Barbara Gelband wrote...

On Friday, March 8, 1963, I was a freshman at Bellport High School. My sister, Myra, was in 8th grade. I was in Spanish class on the second floor of the new building and Myra was in gym when the alarm went off. When everyone was outside, I was anxious to find Myra. She was in her gym clothes and her class was about to go down to the locker room. Thankfully, they all got out because the gym collapsed.

My mother arrived with our sister, Hellen, who was in school at Brookhaven elementary. Somehow my father got word of the fire at his office and he came too, and helped out. We spent the weekend getting calls from friends and family, and trying to understand what happened. We went on split session after that, until the new school opened in Brookhaven.

I graduated there in the class of 1966.

I live in Tucson, Arizona and have had a career that included prosecuting arson cases and teaching about fire cases.

I have handled situations where the outcome was not so favorable, and I am grateful that for all of us, in 1963, everyone survived.



3/7/2013, Scott Slonim wrote...

I can't believe it's been 50 years...and what a miracle that no one died. I was in 7th Brookhaven? at the time and I remember being so worried for Fred McKenna and his brother Jim, who was in the high school at the time. I've now lived in Chicago for more than 30 years and I know people here who were in the tragic Our Lady of Angels fire, in which school children died in around 1959 near downtown Chicago. We were so blessed to have lost no one when our school burned down. I too remember the wrecking ball when the remnants of the old building were removed, and Nancy Roberge, I remember so well your father. I graduated from BHS in '68, so I didn't know him at the time of the fire, but I do remember hearing that he was one of the heroes. As for Bellport generally, when I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit, I always feel like it's home.



3/7/2013, Nathan Mims wrote...

My wife Catherine Chituck was also pushed out of the second story window before the chute was put up she was in the hospital for over two weeks I was I. the new building at the time got out ok.



3/7/2013, June (Costello) Holloway wrote...

When the fire alarm went off just a few minutes before class ended, I was across the hall from the stage area. It wasn't until we got out the door and began to mill around that we realized that this wasn't a drill. We stood helplessly watching friends on the second floor hang out windows until they could be rescued. There were heroes all around us that day. Barry Switzer was hustling side by side with the firefighters trying to get to his sister on the second floor of the old building. I watched my dear friend, Susan Kulakowski come down that fashioned chute and prayed for her life. What stands out most in my memory is the sense of community that existed back then. Every time I return to visit, that same oneness captures my heart and soul reminding me that even for a brief visit, I'm 'home'.



3/7/2013, Dennis Albert Heller wrote...

"WELL" I'll be 70-Yrs old on Dec-20th-2013, And Oh how "I" Remember the School Fire in Bellport.

I was a Rookie Jr. Firefighter with the North Patchogue Fire Department At the time of the fire @ the school. I was standing on the corner of South Ocean Avenue Near the Patchogue Jr-High school. My Mother was a crossing guard there for many years. Someone drove by and yelled to my mother about the fire. I ran all the way to Patchogue's Fire Fire house. I got a ride to North-Patchogue's Fire-House. Where I was on stand-by with fellow firefighters. It's like yesterday!

From that day to this I knew were my future was. I was a Paid Fire Fighter for 23 Years. God moves in our lives with many many things and we do not know from one day to the next what will happen. "GOD" Bless each and every "Fire-Fighter" I've ever known.

Born & Raised on Long Island. Grad-Patchogue Class of 1963. Thanks.



3/7/2013, John Allers wrote...

I posted some live fire footage on youtube. You can find it by searching Bellport High School Fire.



1/28/2013, Steve Jesseph wrote...

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Bellport High School fire, I offer the below thoughts.

In March 1963, I was a 7th grade student at Bellport Jr. HS sitting in Mr. Jester’s civics class, taking a test, sitting next to a window across the field when the fire broke out. I first saw smoke then flames coming out the roof and alerted Mr. Jester who did not believe me – he had no view out the window to the school. I poked a fellow student sitting in front of me and told him to look out the window, which he did. “Holy Pete, Mr. Jester. He’s not kidding. It really IS on fire!” With that, everyone in the class stopped working on their tests and looked out the window. There was an assortment of gasps and screams as everyone rushed to the window to get a better look at what was happening. Many in our class had older brothers or sisters who were students at the high school, and the scene before us was absolutely horrifying.

A short time later, the principal came on the P.A. system to tell us that we would all have to stay at school until our parents came to personally take us home. There were simply too many fire engines, ambulances and other vehicles around the school for us to leave school safely. Walking home that night with my brother and mother, we walked around fire engines and ambulances, and over hoses scattered all over town. Fire trucks and ambulances came from as far as 50 miles away given the magnitude of the fire, and that there were so many students in the building. My father was a physician at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He received a call asking that all available doctors come to the village to help attend to the injured students as there were not enough ambulances to immediately take the injured students to the hospital. The entire village smelled of smoke that evening and for the ensuing several weeks. It was an image and experience I will never forget. The angels were certainly hovering about watching over everyone that day. That no one died that day was, in my view, a true miracle.

In the past two years, I’ve co-authored an extensive fire safety training program which is now being used to train factory managers and employees in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and am now completing an extensive fire safety audit for use within our consulting firm worldwide. The 1963 Bellport fire is an example we use in our training and marketing materials to demonstrate that fires can, and do, happen everywhere and often times when we least expect them. We can only hope that our audits and training will help prevent future fires, and the concurrent loss of property and lives.



1/17/2013, Constance Thompson Bohn Borntraeger wrote...

I was a librarian at the Bellport School at the time of the big fire. I was told by an authority to stand at the back door of the school and not let anybody in. I never saw any of the horrific things going on and was amazed at what had happened. I lived in Bellport from my birth in 1922 and loved the beauty of the town and bay and dunes. Ten years ago I moved to Jacksonville Oregon to be near my Daughter, Signa Bohn Hillis. My other daughter, Karen Bohn, sent me your most interesting collection of memories of the fire.



3/8/2012, Peggy Murphy-Giunta wrote...

I was there...I'll never forget how our town showed so much love after this tragedy...I escaped with only a splinter of wood in my face,..I can't believe it's been this long..I remember looking to make sure my Aunt got out, she was a secretary..It is a miracle that no one died...



7/5/2011, Jose A. Torres wrote...

My name is Jose Torres and I was in the 2nd floor watching a movie in what I believe was science class when we heard the fire alarm. The teacher, cannot recall the name, said that we needed to evacuate for a fire drill. As we left the class room, we started going down the stairwell, and I remember encountering a thick wall of smoke coming up. I then heard screams and students turning around going back to the 2nd floor. By that time, the floor was engulfed with smoke and I do recall chocking and coughing a lot. I also took off my shoes and started to throw them towards the window to break the glass. I cannot recall if some of us jumped or were carried out from the 2nd floor. The next thing I recall is being under a blanket on the school yard and laying next to me was a young girl, then I passed out again. I found myself being pushed on a gurney in the hallway of a hospital and crying out to my mother who was next to me, saying how much I love her. I am forever grateful for all the rescue teams who were there that day, for saving each of us who were in the school fire. Because I was just learning the English language, I did not know many of my fellow students. Since then I have retired from the US Army, from the Dept. of Corrections at the state of Washington, and now currently reside in Vermont with my family. Once again, I thank you for saving my life and those who were in the fire.



7/5/2011, Carolyn Kalil wrote...

My dad was one of the teachers who saved students. His name is Ray Kalil. Do any of you remember him? He's 82 and living in Nashville. He'd be amazed to hear from any of his former students.



4/26/2011, Marianne Rabin wrote...

I was a student in Mrs. Gardner's kindergarten class at Kreamer St school the day of the fire. I was in the morning session, so I was already home when the fire started. My father, Stan Rabin was a Social Studies teacher in the high school. I remember him pulling up in our drive way yelling " The school's on fire! I am taking kids to the hospital!" Our home was on Maple Ave and I looked up and saw the thick black smoke billowing in the sky. I could smell it in the air. That afternoon seems like a big blur to me. I was only 5 years old so it was a lot for me to process. Later that evening my father came home covered in soot and blood. Our station wagon was also covered in soot and blood and filled with shoes, purses, books, etc. It was a bad dream. We went next door to our neighbors house.........the Costello's to check on their daughter June. She was curled up in a fetal position on the couch with a dazed look in her eyes. She babysat my little brother and I. I just remember sitting near her coloring pictures to cheer her up. I am 54 now and live in CT. Many times I think of the day of the fire as it it was yesterday. But most of all, I thank God that lives were saved. I am also proud that my father helped in the rescue.



3/8/2011, John Allers wrote...

On this 48th anniversary I thank all. I still have vivid memories of that day and the following days and the Doctors telling my parents I would not make it through the evening. I have been blessed to live a healthy life and I thank Bellport and the people the teachers the FD and the kids. I still am living in Nashville Tennessee and enjoying life on a daily basis. Enjoy each day. God Bless all of you and your relatives that were there.



8/2/2010, Patrice Kreitler wrote...

After all these years for some reason I thought about the Bellport Fire today and was asking my mother tons of questions about it. My name is Patrice Famiglietti Kreitler and I was 10 years old when the Bellport Fire happened. The reason it is so important to me is my mother was working there at the time in the cafeteria and my cousin Patricia Belcher Baessler was a student there. My cousin Pat lived across the street from us on McDonald Avenue in Bellport and even though I was a lot younger than her we were very close. I was in school then at St. Joseph the Worker and I remember hearing about the fire from the nuns at our school. I started to cry because my mom was in that building and so was my cousin. I tried so hard to get them to let me out of school but they would not. I was so afraid they would die. I prayed and prayed for their safety and when we saw kids jumping out of windows I kept looking for Pat. She was someone I always looked up to and the thought of losing her was more than I could bear. My father had come down to our school and said my mom had gotten out but we still did not know about my cousin Pat. I was so proud of all the students and teachers in what they did to save so many lives and even though I was 10 years old I remember it like it was yesterday. My mom is now 80 years old and she has dementia but when it comes to details about the fire she remembers all of it. I visited Bellport last year and went to our old home on McDonald Avenue and I also went by the school. It is a time that will always stay with me and the joy I felt when I knew my best friend and cousin was safe. I was so happy to hear that no one died and every year on March 8th I thank God for saving all of them Pat Famiglietti Kreitler.



3/9/2010, Robbie Bedell wrote...

March 8, for me, has always been a day of recollection, of how much worse everything could have been if it had not been for so many fearless firefighters, teachers, parents and students. I was fortunate. I was in gym class in the new wing. When the fire bell rang we all were giggling as we went out the door to the playing field, but that laughter stopped when we looked to the east and saw the smoke billowing into the blue sky. I made my way around the south side and remember coming across Kathy Penny and Whitney Rau walking together and just crying. Then I saw the window where the firemen and teachers were getting students out of the second story windows and heard the engines of the fire trucks and the cracking and popping of the flames. I remember seeing my French teacher, Mr. Dugre, up on a ladder. If it had been a day earlier I would have been in Mr. Mahoney's Math class in the middle of the second floor. My locker was next that of John Allers right by the south window where students had to break though the glass with their hands. We used to talk every morning when we were getting our books. John was so badly injured in the fire and I always think he must have been near his locker when the fire started. Several days afterward students were told we could go to the school to get our belongings. I remember one morning walking alone up to the school and seeing all of the blood dripping beneath the window. A lone fireman went in and got my books and my old red and black wool hunting shirt from my locker. That shirt smelled of the fire for years afterwards. Reading all of the names of those who have written before me brings back a flood of memories. I have lived in Florida now for many years, but as so many have said, once you've lived in Bellport no matter where you end up you carry it with you for the rest of your life.



3/22/2009 Kathy (Lockwood) LaLima wrote...

I was in the 3rd grade on the day of the Bellport High School fire. I didn't go to school (Kreamer Street Elementary) that day due to not feeling well. My father (Jack Lockwood) was a fireman for Bellport Fire Dept and went to answer the alarm of the fire. I remember standing at the window of an upstairs bedroom in our house, and watching the sky fill with the black smoke of the fire. I also remember hearing the fire whistle continuously blow, calling additional fire fighters to the high school. Our family lived on General McLean Drive, one of the roads directly across from the elementary and high schools. The day lives on in my memory, it always will. I now reside in Myrtle Beach SC, but Bellport will always be home.



3/17/2009 Sondra Morgan (Torres) wrote...

Here it is many many years after the Bellport school fire and i still shake when i read about it. The Morgan (Sondra Morgan) family was in Florida at the time of the fire on vacation. We couldn't believe what we had just heard on the news, our school on fire. We hoped none of our friends were hurt. I could not wait to get back to Bellport, long Island, NY to see for myself and to know my friends were indeed fine. Had we not been on vacation I would have been right in the middle of that horrific fire.



3/17/2009 Rick Chainey wrote...

I was in the graduating class that year. I did not go class that day because I was under the weather. I remember walking up Station road and watching all the fire trucks going to Bellport. Peggy Murphy's mother stopped and said the school was on fire and gave me a ride to the area. There were a lot of heroic actions that day by a lot of people. If I was too young to think of thanking them back them, I would like to thank them all now.

Right now I am living in Utica New York after spending 26 years and retiring from the Military. I visit Bellport whenever I can. I sure would like to play the Bellport Country Club where I caddied. I remember Charlie Carter the golf pro and the "caddie shack" that we had back then.



3/13/2009 Susan Tully wrote...

March 8, 1963 - I was in the phys ed class with Ruth Tergesen, our gym teacher (she is now retired in Virginia - we have been in touch on and off for over 40 years). We heard the alarm and grumbled about a fire drill so close to our going downstairs to the locker room to change into our street clothes. We would not realize until later how lucky we were. We possibly would have been trapped had we gone down to the locker room. I remember the shock we felt when we went outside from the old gym and saw flames shooting up the windows of the old auditorium. I remember Phyllis Koshland standing there with a basketball, wondering what she should do with it. Images still come into my mind when I think of that day and how lucky we all were that no one died. It was a real trip down Memory Lane when I saw all the names of others who wrote in: Martha Scott, Brian and Pam Hannon, Barbara Briggs, and so many others. Hello to all of you! I left Bellport over 30 years ago, traveled part of the world in the Army, lived in South Carolina for 15 years (I still say y'all) and moved back to Long Island in 1998 after I retired from the SC Carolina Army national Guard (what was a woman and a Yankee thinking?). My mother is still in Bellport, but she had a rental home in Hampton Bays and I bought that from her - I have lived there the last 11 years. I miss the warmth and friendliness of Bellport, but I do visit there and enjoy Artists on the Lane and Wallen's - I still shop there. Mike Wallen was a hero that day; he ran with my mother down Station Road to the high school - he let go of her hand when he saw students jumping out of windows helped carry students down the ladders until he felt pain his chest and had to stop. He was always one of my favorite men in Bellport. I would be remiss if I did not mention the heroism of Mr. Roberge and send my regards to his daughter Terry. All the kids talked about him for several weeks afterward. Another hero was Mr. Rasso - I met his daughter in Southampton after I moved back.

I cannot think of a better place to grow up than Bellport and feel blessed that I had such a positive experience and knew such wonderful people. Hello to all of you wherever you are.



2/9/2009, Chrissy Poynter wrote...

My name is Chrissy Poynter, Granddaughter of the one and only Joe Roberge, niece of Martha, Terry, Nancy, P.J. & Oldest daughter of "Daughter #4" Ellen S. Poynter. Did I fail to mention Terry and Steve Yacubich are my godparents and most certainly two of the best people I know and love? Just putting it all out there for those who might read this and know exactly what I mean by things like "Daughter #4". I currently live in the Atlanta, GA area and I often find myself on this website missing Long Island. I saw a comment earlier about "looping the dock" and now I want more than anything to hop on a plane from ATL, have my parents pick me up at LGA or Kennedy and drive straight to Bellport. Maybe drive by Colonial Lane or George Court...definately visit my Uncle P.J., bring him a snickers Bar...I'm sure Terry and Nanny would appreciate that and so would P.J. I know it might look silly being almost 23 now, but I'd love to play on the playground at the elementary school or ice skate on the bay, or even just sit in the quiet of the winter down by the bay.

I grew up in Patchogue, but almost every holiday childhood memory I have is from Bellport. Artist on the Lane every July 4th. Ho Hum Beach. Driving by Uncle "Teve's" office. Ice cream. "Watching" for the Easter bunny with cousin Dorothy. My high school graduation luncheon at the Country Club. Papa's birthday party where he was given a ticket for walking or mowing too fast. (I can't remember which one it was, but everyone knows he mows grass faster than anyone else in that tiny village.)

In high school I had a lot of friends from Bellport but I never, at the time, quite understood why I seemed to LOVE Bellport more than every single one of them. It hit me while sitting at the Meritage with my two best friends one summer night during my first year of college...

I love Bellport because Bellport loves my family!

I am proud to be a Roberge. I am lucky to have all those stories and memories of Bellport. As far as I know, I spent the only few moments I ever got with my Uncle P.J. in that town. I miss my Papa's house on George Court. Every time I'm in town, I walk down Main Street and remember that my mom worked at the Grocery store or that she rode her bike everywhere to babysit.

I remember the things Aunt Nanny has told me she Jane, Joe Harder, (sp?) and their friends did...

I miss seeing Joe pop over to our family parties just to say HI!

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during the fire in '63 so I could really understand and know what Papa, Joe, Mr. Roberge...what this hero did and said. The pictures of him carrying people away from the building say it all, to me...his granddaughter.

I guess what I wish most of all is that I could take the Village of Bellport with me everywhere I go in life...but I guess that since plenty of other families are still enjoying the beautiful town, I'll have to settle for pictures, stories, the occasional visit and the best memories anyone at age 23 could have



11/25/2008, Barbara (Scott) Downs wrote...

My sister, Martha Scott Phipps recently told me she had sent a letter recalling the Bellport High School Fire to you. I just now got chance to read it and that of others, and I have to tell you how it affected me.

I was married, with 3 children and living in Maryland, courtesy of Grumman. I had been to the store and just as I returned home, the phone was ringing. It was my mother telling me about the fire and that Martha was okay. My aunt in Kingston had seen it on TV and my mother thought she had better call me before I saw it. I immediately turned TV on and just couldn't believe what I was seeing.

I was shocked that something like this could happen, and I am so grateful to those who worked to save the lives of these children. My mom often told me that my father broke all speed records getting home that day, he made it home is about 30 minutes, a trip that normally took about 45-60 minutes.
Every time I drive past the school (and I am in Bellport several times a week) I think about that fire. As a parent myself, I can relate to what my parents went through until they knew that Martha was safe. I thank my lucky stars that my own children never had to experience anything like this, and I never complained about fire drills when I was working in an elementary school.

As Martha said in her comments, she gives back to the community. What a great tribute that has issued from her experience, and indeed, it is a "silver lining" resulting from a tragic event.



10/20/2008, Martha (Scott) Phipps wrote...

Even after all this time, every year on March 8, I recall the day our school burned. In fact, shortly after it happened, I wrote an article about it but never seemed to do anything with it. I just now reread it and I am amazed that my current recollections of that day still match what I wrote just a short time after the fire. And I still feel the emotions of that day when I begin to think about it.

There were only about fifteen or twenty minutes left in the school day. I was in Chemistry class with Mr. Baldwin; we were just finishing up a test when the fire drill bell rang. I remember thinking "How dumb is it to have a drill just before school is out?" We were in a classroom in the south end of the new wing. Our class was supposed to have been in the lab in the old wing that day, but we had switched classrooms with another science class. I don't recall why, just that we'd switched. I recalled this later because I suddenly realized then that if we hadn't switched rooms, we would have been in the second floor hallway where so many of the students were trapped.

As we came out of the building, I looked over and saw smoke rising up from the old wing, but I first attributed this to the incinerator. It wasn't too long after that when a huge cloud of thick, black smoke arose from the building and I finally comprehended that it was not a drill but an actual fire. I recall standing there watching for flames as if that would convince me that it really was a fire. As I looked at the south end of the old building though, I recall the shock and horror I felt as I saw students yelling, screaming, and crying while trying to get out. I saw students leap, bleeding from window glass cuts, faces black with soot. Then I saw flames coming from the girl's gymnasium.

At the extreme south end of the hall, students were leaping from the window that faced the bank across the street. They were sprawled all over the lawn, choking and gasping for air. I saw unconscious students on the lawn awaiting medical care. Some who had escaped by the stairwell or were on the first floor walked around dazed and bewildered. I recall both teachers and students assisting the Bellport Fire Department with ladders and hoses. One fleeting thought I had at that time, which I still remember, is of a student who was traditionally known at school as a "troublemaker." He was right there with everyone else helping and I remember thinking "He can't be as bad as they say he is because there he is, helping along with the others." A makeshift chute was rigged at the end of the hallway at the window and I saw unconscious students being slid down it.

Students were brought to the Valley National Bank across the street for first aid and to await the ambulances. Bank workers, their clothing bloody and covered with soot, attended the students and showed some to telephones. I saw ambulances arriving and leaving; in one car that went by I saw a student in it, covered with soot and looking like he was in shock. By then the auditorium and girl's gym were one mass of flame. And there was still that thick black smoke. I saw teachers on ladders, reaching into the building to try to reach students. I remember Mr. Hall up on the ladder at the top, leaning in the window, trying to help someone out.

I remember feeling so helpless and very scared for all those I saw injured. There were so many sirens, ambulances, fire trucks, and private cars carrying injured students it seemed surreal. After all, this was something that happened to "other people", not us, not our school.

My mother was at home but didn't drive and my father worked in Bethpage at Grumman. I remember at one point I felt I needed to get away from there and started to walk home. But I was walking in the wrong direction and that is how my parents found me, in emotional shock. My mother had called my dad when she heard the news and I guess he'd driven really fast to get there. I have no sense of time though. Sometimes it seemed like slow motion and other times like fast forward. I remember being kind of numb and not being able to make sense of things.

That evening, my best friend Gail and I walked back down to the school. It was an eerie sight. Floodlights stood where just that afternoon students lay unconscious. The lights focused on the front of the school where a huge gap in the front wall revealed a burned room, charred and black, with the faceless frame of a clock on the back wall. But the most disturbing sight was where the lights were focused on the window at the south end where so many had leaped to escape. From the window casing to the top of the first floor door was a huge trail of blood. I remember standing there looking at it, just shivering at what had happened there earlier. There were a lot of students there that evening; so many of us had our first awareness that we were lucky to be alive.

So, every year on March 8th, I always remark to my husband, "This is the anniversary of the day my school burned." I sometimes call Gail on that day (yes, we are still friends) and we chat about it. I now have six grandchildren. When they complain about school, I tell them the story of when my school burned. They, of course, don't get it, but neither did we until it happened. The good that came out of it is that I am an EMT with our volunteer fire department and I get so much satisfaction from being able to help people in crisis, which I couldn't do that day. My husband is a Fire Chief so our lives are inundated with fire "stuff." As long as I live, I will never forget March 8, 1963 and the courage and bravery of so many. I suppose some people have gone on and moved away from those memories. But not me; I'll never forget.

Thanks for the opportunity to share this. Bellport will always be my home even though I live far away in Texas. I think I'll need to "Loop the dock" after I send this...



9/29/2008, Patricia Belcher-Baessler wrote...

A friend told me about this article and I just finished reading it. Once I stopped shaking enough to be able to type I decided to share with you my thoughts and impressions of that day. I was a Junior in March 1963 and was in Mr. Eades Art Class. We were in the last classroom before you got to the side door on the south side of the building. We were in the "Old Building" but we were lucky to be near the exit. The window above the door is where there was a carved eagle and where, inside, many students were found unconscious.

The day of the fire it was very close to the end of the day. When the fire alarm went off we were very annoyed that there could be a fire drill so close to the end of the day. We got up and kind of strolled out into the cold March air and all stood close to the building to try to keep warm. As we stood there we saw one of the coaches come running out of the main entrance of the "New Building" yelling and screaming wildly about something. We watched him and were amazed that he wanted to make this drill so authentic. As he got closer we could hear him yelling, "Get away from the building", over and over. We still had no clue, so again we strolled down the sidewalk of the school to the main sidewalk.

As I got to that portion of sidewalk, I turned around, and as I looked at the auditorium windows (very long, old-fashioned type), the windows suddenly imploded then exploded. The glass flew so high you could no longer see it. The flames also shot so high it looked like a movie, it was incredible. Everyone started screaming and we now knew why the fire alarm had gone off. I turned to look back at the window over the door out of which we had exited and suddenly there was a big group of students at it trying to get out. Behind them you could see black smoke just rolling around and around, sometimes engulfing their heads. They were screaming and crying, as were we. We thought we would see our schoolmates die right in front of us.

The first student in the window group was Skip (who would later die in Vietnam.) He struggled with the window but in his panic was unable to open it. As he struggled, the group of students behind him were desperately reaching for the window. They were screaming, crying, and looked terrorized beyond belief. Thick black smoke rolled around them, sometimes enveloping their heads; they had black streaks running down their faces from their tears mixed with the smoke. All of us on the sidewalk inched closer to the building screaming for help watching this horror unfold. I could not believe I was actually watching my classmates die. Finally, in desperation Skip took both his arms and put them through the glass, so that there was a means of escape. When he did that the flesh on his forearms hung in ribbons. His blood created red streams down the side of the building over the south door and puddled on the step.

Skip climbed out onto the carved eagle and dropped down onto the step. He seemed to be in shock. An adult wrapped his arms in clean cloths and led him away. Other students came out the window the same way Skip had but now desperation and severe panic had set in. The two boys who were the most injured came out this window. One of them fell out the window and landed flat on his feet; the other landed on his knees.

My Art teacher, Mr. Eades, was helping in the rescue. He stood outside our Art Room, and caught a student who jumped from the Chem Lab window, which was directly above our Art Room. The catch sent Mr. Eades to the hospital and he told me later it ruined his back; it was never the same. I saw a car parked next to the Gym and the paint on it melted. The tires softened and the whole car settled down to the ground.

My Mother worked at Hampton Ave. School and rushed to find me, not knowing if I was dead or alive. My Father was a Civil Engineer for NYS and was at the Main Office in Babylon. The office was notified that our school had blown up and everyone was killed. As a parent I cannot imagine what my parents went through that day.

Bellport High School had its 15 minutes of fame, not as much for the fire, but because there were no deaths. It was truly a miracle. For our Senior Year we dedicated the Yearbook ("The Log") to "The Old Building" and President John Kennedy, who we lost November 1963. Anyone who has suffered a near-death experience is left with some degree of PTSD. All of us who were there that day looked death in the face, some to a lesser degree, some more. Whatever anyone else's experience was that day, it gave me a very deep appreciation of the people in my life and of life itself.



9/16/2008, Marguerite (Peg) Petersen wrote...

I just signed up to receive my home town news. I clicked on to the link about the school fire in 1963. I was 8, in 3rd grade, and in the elementary school just across the field. I never knew how much it effected me till I started to read the article. Tears welled up in my eyes, my breathing got shallow and quick, and I started to shake. It felt like mini post traumatic stress syndrome. Our house was 4 doors away on Woodland Park Road and I remember my brother (Bob) and dad (Harold)fighting the blaze and coming home with icicles in their hair from all the water that was put on the blaze. I didn't know there was an article in Life magazine - I'd love to find a copy and read the original story.

Several year back I visited the Historical Society in Bellport. I immediately identified the tan colored "urn" by the front door as a piece of the school's roof line decoration on the side facing Station Road. As a child I remember always looking at them and wondering how big they were. Now I know.........



6/12/2008, Barbara Briggs Fox, AKA “Briggsy” wrote...

It would be hard to forget March 8, 1963, especially if you were on the second floor of Bellport Sr. High School. It’s even harder to willingly recall the details. It was the day the dragon spewed fire into our lives. As I sit at my computer, my hands are slightly shaky, slightly damp. Tears have rushed to my eyes.

I was in English Class. My class was at the north end of the 2nd floor corridor, on the west side. We were working when the fire alarm sounded. Our teacher, whose name I can’t recall but whose face I’ll never forget, made us finish working before allowing us to participate in the fire drill. Once we had our teacher’s permission, we did the customary orderly fire drill exit into the hall, turning right to head to the south stairs. That’s when we entered a world of confusion and panic. This was no fire drill. It was the real thing. That was the last I saw of my English teacher.

We continued toward the south end of the hall. Suddenly black smoke came up the south stair well. It spread out across the entire hall, floor to ceiling, and pushed towards us in a huge black wall. I was engulfed in an instant. The smoke was so thick that I could feel it surround my body like slightly warm glue. Breathing was hard.

Something drew me towards the end of the hall, maybe it was the light. Maybe not. My world was surreal. I couldn’t see my schoolmates but I could hear them screaming. One person said, “Get off me, get off me” another said, “Let me die. I wanna die.” I didn’t know who they were or where they were as I pressed forward.

Then I couldn’t go forward any longer. I don’t know if I was stopped by other kids or by my own failing ability to breath the black glue, but I leaned against the wall on the left side of the hall. I remember the wall being lined with lockers. I could see people trying to raise the window but it would not go up. Someone smashed the glass and tried to crawl through. I closed my eyes and leaned against the wall. I prayed. I didn’t make promises to God or try to make a deal. I just asked him over and over to help me.

Suddenly someone grabbed both of my arms from behind, just below my shoulders. Next I was on a ladder. I felt my feet being firmly thrust on to each rung, giving them no chance to slip, giving them no opportunity to stop. Rung by rung I was carefully and quickly guided to the ground. And then I was alone. A person told me to go to the bank across the road. I tried to get there but I couldn’t walk a straight line and kept curving off to the right, until another person guided me.

I laid down somewhere. I guess it was in the bank. I remember Shawn Reed speaking to me, although I have no recollection of what he said.

The next thing I remember is the hospital, Bayview, I think. I had big cotton patches on my eyes. The doctor asked me if I was having trouble breathing. I said no. He left the room and suddenly I could not breath at all. The inability to suck in air is one sensation I will never forget. I remember the nurses assembling the oxygen tent.

A person placed a soft, squishy toy into my hands. I could tell it was a lady by her voice but she didn’t tell me her name. Later when I was able to see I discovered a raspberry colored Koala bear that someone had knitted. I never had the opportunity to say thank you.

My Mom came to the hospital. She sat quietly by my bed in her wheel chair. Mom had very severe Multiple Sclerosis and could not walk at all, sometimes even speaking was difficult. She’d watched the fire on TV in horror, alone because my Dad had gone to the school to find my sister and me. She’d had no way of knowing if her daughters were safe until my Dad called her to say Nancy was safe and I was on the way to the hospital. I don’t know how long she sat in her wheel chair, praying and trying not to panic, in front of the TV. I can only imagine how helpless she must have felt and how time must have seemed like it was crawling. Under normal circumstances my Mom could not go anywhere. She could not stand up, let alone walk. But these circumstances were not normal and Mom insisted that my Dad bring her to me in the hospital.

My Dad, always the rock, never let on how he felt about what happened, but I could tell. Several times he stopped at Carvel on his way to see me in the hospital. He’d bring an ice cream soda and a sundae, in case I felt well enough to eat one of them. Why was this so special? When I was a child my family would stop at Carvel as a special treat on outings. We were never allowed to have more than an ice cream cone but Dad brought “the works” to the hospital. He came to see me regularly.

Shawn Reed brought juices to my house when I came home from the hospital. He said they had been collected to help those of us who were suffering from smoke inhalation.

And then there were those terrible pictures in Life magazine of my childhood friend hanging by his arms from the ledge of the south window.

Memory is a funny thing. We don’t always have the opportunity to choose what to remember. I have both large and small memories of the fire. I remember feelings, thick smoke, someone’s hands on my arms, my feet placed on ladder rungs, not being able to walk a straight line, feeling suffocation even after I was out of danger….. I remember a sense of wonder that a person, the school bad boy, was the face that I recognized when I was totally disoriented and then later as the bearer of juice to my home.

Eventually I returned to attend split shifts in the remaining part of the High School building. In 1967 I graduated from a brand new school on Beaver Dam Road. And now I’m told that my nephew is the Principal of Bellport Sr. High School.

My Dad and I spoke about that day years after I’d left LI behind,. He told me that Mike Wallen believed he was the person who found me at the lockers and helped me down the ladder. Mr. Wallen is representative of a group of amazing people who saved about 4 dozen trapped young people that day. Other amazing people surfaced in our community, too. They were there to help us once our smoke covered feet hit the ground. Thank you is a small thing to say and 45 years is a long time to wait, but none the less… Thank you.

My hands are no longer shaking while I type this and my palms have dried. However the tears have not vacated my eyes. I know some of my friends and schoolmates have different, frightening memories of March 8, 1963. Even though we all wish it never happened, March 8, 1963 connects us by an invisible string. In case you were on the second floor, I want to tell you that, for me, writing about that day has taken some of the fire out of the dragon.

By the way, I just remembered the name of my English teacher. Now the face has a name.



5/15/2008, Elliot Borden wrote...

I was senior at BHS, on the day of the fire, in a first floor classroom of the new building. The alarm sounded and we all thought it was a fire drill. As we left the classroom we could see smoke coming down the hall from the old building and I remember thinking to myself that they're sure making this drill looks real.

When we got outside we could see what was really happening. Students were hanging out of windows waiting for help, smoke pouring out of the building. It was surreal.

I remember David Hassel catching a young girl, Whitney Rau I think, as she jumped. Both of his knees were injured but he was a real hero.

This was all on a Friday afternoon. By the next week we were all back in school on a modified schedule, things appearing to be running quite normally.

I still have a copy of Life Magazine with a picture of the fire on the Cover.



4/23/2008, Charles Hoyt wrote...

Graduated Bellport high in 1961--was out in California when the news of the Bellport fire spread all across the country-a miracle indeed that all were safe-Mr. hall was my favorite teacher along with Mr. Baldwin--oh those were the days--as a kid growing up gave a little business to Trotta bros. market and Wallens and of course Paul's fish market--and a few people should remember Raddatz's luncheonette with the jukebox, and don't forget the homemade pies--well thank god for memories-currently residing in Theodore, Alabama--semi-retired--Bellport forever.



3/19/2008, Nancy J. Roberge wrote...

How could I forget March 8, 1963 when I had a father, Joseph Roberge, BHS chemistry teacher, the fellow on the left helping to carry the stretcher in the photograph, and a sister, Terry Roberge-Yacubich who was about to go down to the basement to shower after a gym class? Those girls would have been trapped by the fire and a tragedy of great enormity was fortunately avoided.

I was in the Kreamer Street elementary school at the time. We heard the fire engines and commotion and our teachers finally told us what was going on. PANIC! For me, I could only think of my Dad and sister who were less than 1/4 mile building which was on fire!

Our teachers let us know that if our parents came to pick us up, we could go home. My Dad was helping rescue students, getting rid of chemicals which might explode or act as an accelerant, hollering for kids to come to his voice in a smoky hallway so that they could escape out his 2nd floor window to ladders to safety and my Mom who had MS could not rescue me from school. Thankfully, Lucy Weinstein, Susan's mother and our neighbor came to pick us up.

With my trusty brownie camera in hand, I ran over to the fire and started taking pictures. I remember the "cherry picker" that our fire department got afterwards, as a result of that fire. Thankfully, this horrible fire did not take anyone's life. I remember feeling so proud, even as a kid, of all the teachers, the firemen and all those who pitched in to help save lives that day. I also remember watching the demolition of the burned out shell of a building. That big cement ball banging into the walls and causing them to crumble. It really was sad to watch.

Yes, I remember where I was on March 8, 1963. I so miss my Bellport!



1/9/2008, Vince Marrazzo of East Patchogue wrote...

I remember the fire, I was home on leave from France. I was visiting a lady friend when I heard the Fire Sirens, first Bellport, then Hagerman, and then Patchogue. I went out to South country Road and hitched a ride. I think it was a chaplin from the Patchogue Fire Department. I got out at the traffic light and ran towards the school. My sister (Toni) was in school at the time, and my Dad was with the Hagerman fire Department. I headed across the front lawn of the school and met my sister Vivian administering first aid. I continued North to where I could see the Hagerman trucks. I found Mr. Frank Kotasek at an engine and asked where my Dad was, Frank coughed and pointed to the roof between the old and new section. The smoke lifted for a second and I saw my Dad, he was aiming the fire hose nozzle, I also noticed his Italian Stoggie clenched in his mouth. I felt I need not worry, Dad was on the job my sisters were safe. I stayed out of the way and helped with first aid as best I could.



3/15/2007, Brian Hannon of Bellport wrote...

I remember being in class on the second floor of the new building when the fire alarm started to ring. We were finishing an exam. As I exited the new building the horror of seeing the flames engulfing the old building seemed like something out of a nightmare. This can't be really happening. I ran toward the flames. They were roaring high over the roof of the auditorium. The heat was so intense the glass was melting. I remember students grabbing the ladders off the fire truck before the firemen could climb down from the trucks. Others were trying to rip bushes out of the ground to break the fall of students being pushed out of the second floor windows. I remember one classmate standing on the front ledge of the building, trying to get air and preparing to leap. There were all the victims coming down the chute. Most of them covered in black soot. They were lifeless bodies. You recognized no one.

When it was all over and the firemen stood vigil into the night so did many of us students who could not leave the grounds. We were stunned. We were still all trying to grasp what had just happened to us. It was a day that brought the whole community together. I remember being in church a few days after and people were hugging each other and patting each other on the back. We were spared the ultimate tragedy, but our lives were changed that day forever.



3/14/2007, Pamela Hannon of Bellport wrote...

Bellport High School Fire. I remember so many details of that day. The alarm going off just a few minutes before the end of the school day...seeing to the exit...frantically trying to find my sister and brother...trying to find our friends, worrying and praying that no one would perish in the fire. The smell from that burning building stays with me to this day. I am grateful to everyone who helped...including students who ran for the ladders and tried valiantly to rescue their friends. Last week I said to a co-worker that this is the anniversary of the school fire. She said to me..."HOW COULD YOU REMEMBER THAT DATE" I will never forget it.