On December 1st 1958 shortly before the students' dismissal from school for the day a fire broke out at Our Lady of The Angels school in Chicago.
The fire may have burned unnoticed for up to 30 minutes, consuming the trash barrel and then setting fire to the steps to the first floor. The superheated gases from the fire shattered a window in the stairwell giving the fire a new source of oxygen that greatly increased its power. Heavy wooden doors blocked the fire from entering the first floor corridor so the fire took the only other exit it could by moving up the space between the walls and from there to the attic. The fire blew through the ceiling into the second floor corridor moments before the students would have been dismissed for the day. The teachers and students did not know the fire was burning until they touched a door and found it the handle to hot to touch or opened the door momentarily, only to be forced back into the room by the noxious smoke and fire. At that point the students were left with two choices: stay in the room and pray, or go to the windows for fresh air and the possibility of escape by jumping from the second story windows. As the fire ate through the ceilings into the classrooms the situation worsened. There were then many more students in each classroom than we are used to today: between 50 and 65 students in each room, and so the windows were crowded and students had to and did viciously fight to get to a window for fresh air.
The fire department was delayed in getting to the school because the call they received told them that the fire was either in the church or the rectory not the school. When they reached the school they were faced with a locked iron gate that prevented them from having immediate access to the best location to fight the fire and to save the children who were in the classrooms. By that time students were already jumping out of windows, dying or sustaining severe injuries on impact. Parents rushed to the school looking for their children. The school had received repeated warnings from the fire marshal, but had not heeded any of the recommended changes that would have shortened the the arrival of the fire department. It would have been a simple solution to replace the fire alarm bells that rang only in the school building to ones that ring not only in the school but also summon the fire department, but it had not been done.
Of the 1,600 students, nuns and lay teachers in the building 195 died, all in the second floor of the north wing.
In the book, The Fire That Will Not Die by Michele MacBride, she tells of her experiences in the burning inferno that was the school: "I watched in horror as children stopped struggling for air and started laughing. It was not a friendly, joking laugh, but the snarling bray of a hyena. Their heads were thrust back, their mouths wide open and gagging, as spit streamed down their fear stricken faces."
Another, even more horrifying quote from the same source is, "A bright orange doll appeared and curled up in the most grotesque manner. The straw doll and I were falling...I screamed. The 'straw doll' was Lisa."
There are safety methods in our schools today that have been inspired by this and other disasters. They include: alarms that sound both in the school and at fire departments and other rescue services; the institution of regular fire drills; and buildings designed to be fireproof (or as fire-resistant as possible.) Sadly many schools are still open today that were built as much as a century before. Some schools have been retrofitted to be as fireproof as possible; others have not been; but all could still be possible sites for disastrous fires.
Books used for this article:
To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire by David Cowan and John Kuenster. An excellent overview of the fire and includes pictures of Our Lady of the Angels during and after the fire. The book is available at Amazon.com.
Remembrances of the Angels: 50th Anniversary Reminiscences of the Fire No One Can Forget by John Kuenster. A book of personal memories from those who survived the fire, from journalists who witnessed the fire and others who were present that day. Used copies of the book can be found at Amazon.com.
The Fire That Will Not Die by Michele McBride. A personal collection of memories from one badly burned survivor of the fire. It includes not only the author's memories of the fire, but also her experience as burn patient.The book is available at Amazon.com, and is highly recommended for further reading.
Chicago Calamities (IL): Disaster in the Windy City by Gayle Soucek includes coverage of many Chicago disasters including the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School.This book is also available at Amazon.com
Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, December 1, 1958.
A Firefighter's Own Worst Enemy.