Ninety students die in Chicago school fire

Ninety students die in Chicago school fire

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A fire at a grade school in Chicago kills 90 students on December 1, 1958.

The Our Lady of Angels School was operated by the Sisters of Charity in Chicago. In 1958, there were well over 1,200 students enrolled at the school, which occupied a large, old building. Unfortunately, little in the way of fire prevention was done before December 1958. The building did not have any sprinklers and no regular preparatory drills were conducted. When a small fire broke out in a pile of trash in the basement, it led to disaster.

The fire probably began about 2:30 p.m. and, within minutes, teachers on the first floor smelled it. These teachers led their classes outside, but did not sound a general alarm. The school’s janitor discovered the fire at 2:42 and shouted for the alarm to be rung. However, he was either not heard or the alarm system did not operate properly, and the students in classrooms on the second floor were completely unaware of the rapidly spreading flames beneath them.

It took only a few more minutes for the fire to reach the second floor. Panic ensued. Some students jumped out windows to escape. Although firefighters who were arriving on the scene tried to catch them, some were injured. Firefighters also tried to get ladders up to the windows. One quick-thinking nun had her students crawl under the smoke and roll down the stairs, where they were rescued. Other classes remained in their rooms, praying for help.

When the fire was finally extinguished several hours later, the authorities found that 90 students and 3 nuns had been killed in the fire.

Chicago survivor of school fire that killed 95 recalls terrifying ordeal 60 years later

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the Our Lady Of Angels school fire in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, which claimed 95 lives.

Serge Uccetta was just 12 years old when he had to make a choice: jump out of a second floor window to the ground below or perish in the flames.

"The only way out was through the windows because the fire had pretty much come and there was no way to get out in the hallway," Uccetta said.

Looking on at the site of the fire where his old school once stood, he remembers it all.

"I mean, you have no choice," he said. "Because everybody behind you is pushing and screaming, because they're trying to get out, and you have to do whatever you have to do to get out."

Uccetta made it out of the fire but will never forget what he saw next.
"I mean, you're sitting here looking at kids screaming, jumping out the window," he said.

Ninety-two children and three nuns were killed in the tragedy seen around the world.

"There was a famous photograph of a little boy, John Jajcowski, with a fireman bringing him out," Uccetta said.

Photographer Steve Lasker took that photo and many more documenting the tragedy. He was on the scene as firefighters arrived and captured anguish and suffering with every click.

WATCH: Steve Lasker discusses photographing the deadly fire 60 years ago

Remembering the Our Lady of the Angels school fire 60 years later

It has been 60 years, but Serge Uccetta remembers Dec. 1, 1958 like it happened recently. That’s the day fire engulfed his elementary school, Our Lady of the Angels near Hamlin and Chicago avenues, taking the lives of 95 people — 92 students and three women religious.

“Let me tell you, you don’t forget something like that. It may be 60 years but it’s like it was a year ago,” Uccetta said.

Uccetta, who was 12 at the time of the fire, gave remarks at an annual service held at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside Dec. 2 at a memorial to the fire victims. The service is hosted by alumni of the Royal-Air Drum and Bugle Corps, a youth group in the Our Lady of the Angels neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s.

The group lost three of its members in the fire — Frances Guzaldo, Valerie Thoma and Roger Ramlow.

“We pledge to come here on the anniversary date of the fire as a remembrance of those three kids and all the others who passed away,” Uccetta told Chicago Catholic.

The day the fire happened was a “typical school day,” he said.

“It was the end of the day. I happened to have wastebasket duty so around 2:30 I had to take the wastebasket downstairs to the janitor.”

He met a friend on the stairs and they chatted on the way down and back up, then returned to their classrooms.

“The nun was getting ready to finish the day. About 2:45 or so the doors started rattling like it was windy in the hall,” Uccetta said.

Someone opened the door and the smoke billowed in.

“They slammed it shut. The smoke started coming in over the transom,” he said. “There was obviously no way to get out that way so everybody headed for the windows.”

Because seating was alphabetical, Uccetta was sitting in the last row next to the windows. A boy in front of him jumped out the window, hit the ground and didn’t get up. His immediate thought was, “This is not good.”

“One of the janitors had come around with a short ladder and I threw my glasses down to get his attention. He saw me and put the ladder up at my window, thank God,” Uccetta said. “I was able to hang down the window sill and scamper down.”

When he was out of the school he saw kids running, screaming and jumping from windows.

“It was a pretty horrific sight,” he said. “The tragedy decimated the entire neighborhood. Every street lost two or three kids.”

Soon after families started moving out of the neighborhood.

“A lot of kids were saying that they had friends next door who didn’t make it and it was hard for the parents looking out to the street and seeing the little kids playing because where was their child? It was very difficult.”

Patty DelGreco, a Royal-Airs alumna who attended the Dec. 2 service, was just 6 years old at the time of the fire. She remembers being with her mom as they drove back to their neighborhood and being stopped by all of the fire trucks.

“In the meantime, we’re watching all of the smoke and all of the children screaming,” DelGreco said. “People were running out of their houses everywhere with blankets and ladders.”

DelGreco’s family lived near to the school on Grand and Hamlin avenues and her mother opened up her doors to many of the children as they fled.

“By the time we got near our home on Grand Avenue all of the kids were running with no coats. Some had no shoes. They had black soot on their face,” DelGreco said. “My mom opened up the door and let them in to warm up and call home.”

Her family lost 13 relatives and neighbors in the fire and she says “it impacted my whole life.”

She’s had cancer and was in a recent car accident, but thinking of the kids who died in the fire gets her through.

“I think ‘I can do this.’ I’m not laying there all burned up.”

Not just neighborhood families were impacted that day, but first responders too.

Guy Neubert was a young motorcycle officer just off probation with the Chicago Police Department when he was called to help the fire department on Dec. 1.

The then-28-year-old officer was assigned to another district when a call came in.

“We got a call to go to Pulaski and Chicago avenue to assist the fire department. We didn’t know what the reason was.”

As they neared the area they could see the smoke but it wasn’t until they reached the police command center that they were told Our Lady of the Angels was on fire.

“I had four nephews in that fire, as did other police there,” Neubert said. “Actually, one had removed his own son.”

Following the fire, a temporary morgue was set up at the armory on Kedzie Avenue. By that time Nuebert’s brother was with him and they feared one of his nephews — Charles, 9 — was dead.

“We knew that the room that Charles was in was the room where they all perished. From there I accompanied my brother to the temporary morgue and that’s when we identified Charles.”

Neubert made the identification himself based upon a pattern of moles he saw on his nephew’s back. They were the same pattern he has on his own back.

After they made the identification, they still hadn’t found his brother’s three other sons, so they returned to the school. They soon found out that families had taken the children in to keep them safe.

One of his strongest memories from the day was a priest he knew who came to the scene comforting families and helping with removal of bodies. That was Msgr. Ed Pellicore, former pastor at Holy Rosary Parish and Our Lady of Angels, who heard about the fire while in his office at nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Neubert saw Pellicore ministering to the children, families and first responders at the school and even at the temporary morgue.

“I just can’t praise Father Pellicore enough,” Neubert said. “Just the fact that he knew the families and was able to give them comfort.”

Like many impacted by the fire the memory doesn’t go away.

“It was probably one of the saddest scenes that I ever worked in my whole career,” Neubert said.

The Story Behind Another 'Great Chicago Fire'

Firefighters on the scene of the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in 1958 (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-34978)

On Dec. 1, 1958—a cold and cloudless day in Chicago󈠪 people perished in a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School, in the predominantly Catholic neighborhood of Humboldt Park. Among the victims were 87 grade-school children and three nuns (five children died subsequently, in hospital, bringing the total to 95). It remains, to this day, one of Chicago’s deadliest fires Chicago’s then-Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn said it was “the worst thing I have ever seen or will ever see.”

Nowadays, mention of the fire arouses an almost binary response. For those alive at the time, the school-aged especially, the tragedy is an indelible, cautionary tale. My God, they’ll say, who could forget? The nuns wouldn’t allow it. I warn my own kids. For others, born later and learning for the first time, news of the fire produces a kind of awed disbelief.

From time to time, while researching the fire, I’d uncover references to Our Lady of the Angels on websites for ghost tours, or in listings for so-called “haunted” places. It bothered me, at first. The interest felt lurid and cynical, somehow, though perhaps it’s unavoidable in cases in which scores of innocent people die sudden, ghastly deaths. Crowds gather likewise on Wacker Drive, at the site of the Eastland disaster, or huddle on warm summer nights in the drab alley behind the Ford Center, site of the former Iroquois Theatre and Chicago’s deadliest blaze. When the theater burned down, it killed 602, even more than the Great Chicago Fire.

Eventually, though, my opinion about the Our Lady of the Angels story changed. I came to agree the site was haunted. Not in any paranormal sense, certainly, but haunted by a painful and unresolved history, by a plague of crime and poverty in a once-prosperous neighborhood, and by unanswerable questions.

Firefighters inspect the wreckage of the Our Lady of the Angels fire (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-34979)

The fire started sometime after 2:20 p.m. It began in a trash can, in a corner stairwell of the school’s north wing. That section, built in 1910, had been the original church, outgrown by a thriving parish. It was later joined, of necessity, to a south wing via an annex. The result was haphazard: a two-story, U-shaped building surrounding a courtyard, bound tightly by Iowa Street, Avers Avenue, a concrete alley, and the Parish House and Rectory. From the outside, the brick school appeared durable and safe. The interior, however, was constructed almost entirely of wood and other flammable materials. The building had a single fire bell, located in the South Wing, but unwired to the fire department. By 1958, in midst of the baby boom, the school housed over 1,200 children. In many cases, its cramped classrooms were stuffed with 50 students or more, overcrowding almost unthinkable today.

Advent had just begun, a time for Catholics to rejoice and contemplate Christ’s return. The school day was ending. Everything seemed routine, but the fire had been burning, undetected, beneath the northeast stairs. Suddenly, a window in the stairwell burst and the fire erupted. Fueled by fresh oxygen, it stormed to the second floor. Today, modern safety codes insist on enclosed stairways with fireproof doors, but the school lacked both. The stairway was open to the central corridor, the sole means of escape for the six classrooms and 329 children there. Before anyone realized, the hallway was roiling with smoke. It was thick and opaque and deadly, like “huge black rolls of cotton,” as a nun later described it.

People inspect the Our Lady of Angels building after the fire (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-35438)

The second floor occupants were trapped. To attempt the corridor and stairs meant almost certain death. For most, the only option was to shelter in the vulnerable classrooms and wait for the fire department, while fire bore down. One quick-thinking nun blocked the gaps below her door with textbooks, while others gathered their students in prayer, determined to keep the frightened children calm.

In order to breathe, they opened the windows, which fanned the flames. In desperation, many jumped. Unfortunately, the fall was perilous. The school was equipped with an above-grade English-style basement, and the second floor windows were nearly 30 feet above the pavement. Neighbors ran to the school with ladders, but all came up short. At last, a battalion from the fire department arrived. Even so, the first ladder company on scene lost crucial minutes going to the wrong building, believing the fire was in the Rectory (911 as we know it did not yet exist, and the initial call to the fire department originated from the Rectory offices). Fire trucks repositioned, wasting time. They battered down a stubborn iron gate guarding the courtyard, as kids pleaded with them from above. More and more equipment arrived, but the fire, with its long head start, had the advantage.

Amid the chaos, the balance between life and death was sometimes a matter of luck and location. Occasionally, survival verged on miraculous. One child (now an adult in her 60s) has said she does not in all truth know, to this day, how she got from her burning classroom to the ground below. Several possibilities are plausible.

In the end, 200 firefighters were called to the scene. It was a five-alarm fire, which prompted the Department’s maximum response. It’s commonplace now, in serious emergencies—extra-alarm fires, school shootings, etc.—to establish a secure and remote perimeter, but such was not the case then. News spread quickly. The area surrounding the school was soon thronged with onlookers, including frantic parents hunting for their children. As the scale of the tragedy sunk in, a stunned neighborhood witnessed the worst at close range.

The loss of life was appalling. Ninety bodies were removed. The indelible image of the tragedy is of fireman Richard Scheidt. He’s too late, his coat drenched, his face hardened in pain. A lifeless, seraphic-looking boy hangs in his arms, limbs dangling, as solemn a depiction of agony as the Pieta of Michelangelo.

Parents at St. Anne's Hospital after the fire at Our Lady of the Angels (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-26743)

Almost six decades later, the fire remains an open case. Officially, it’s considered an accident. Although never proven, a widely-held belief still persists that the fire was set. From the very beginning, senior fire officials suspected arson.

A few years after the fire, a juvenile suspect was investigated for setting fires in Cicero. He’d been a troubled 10-year-old student at Our Lady of the Angels back in 1958, a fact which interested the investigators. Under examination he confessed to setting the school fire, and was given a lie detector test. He confirmed specific facts about the fire hitherto unknown to the public. The examiners felt convinced he’d told the truth. The case went to Family Court in 1962, heard by Judge Alfred J. Cilella. In court, the boy recanted. Judge Cilella threw out the confession, which he criticized, and dismissed the charge against the boy in the Our Lady of the Angels case. Cilella was a highly respected judge, and a deeply committed Catholic. He had private misgivings, reportedly, yet he found the boy innocent. Among other things, he feared for the youth’s safety if found culpable, and believed that the Catholic Church had suffered more than enough hardship over the fire.

There were other leads, and a second confession some years later, quickly dismissed. As it stands today, given the time that has passed, the source of ignition will likely never be known.

A priest blesses the body of a victim of the Our Lady of Angels fire (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-26694)

It’s essential to ask but impossible to answer. Why this school, at this time, and not another? Our Lady of the Angels School wasn’t particularly unique. In 1958, the same could have happened almost anywhere. Back then, a suffering community demanded a response, but even now, there are no easy answers. The questions only multiply.

Even if the above suspicions were true and somehow verifiable, it doesn’t explain why a 10-year-old places a match in a cardboard drum in the first place, or what causes him to become, if not a serial arsonist, then at least someone who intentionally sets fires. The perpetrator may have been emotionally troubled, abused or bullied. The parents may have missed the problem, or refused to face it out of ignorance, or fear or some other bewilderment which all parents experience, even in the best of circumstances. We’ll never fully know.

Besides, the fire’s human cost is why we care. Had 95 lives not been lost, particularly the lives of children and nuns—blameless in their deaths, and traditionally viewed as innocents—there would have been no tragedy or lasting legacy. Memory of the event, like the fire itself, would have died out long ago. The story scarcely feels modern, though in truth the fire occurred at the dawn of the space age, just a few years before Mariner 2 traveled to Venus and Kennedy challenged the nation with the moon. Yet, somehow, a building which housed over 1,200 children lacked a basic sprinkler system, proper fire doors, and an alarm connected to the fire department. The National Fire Prevention Association put it bluntly: The 95 deaths in this fire are an indictment of those in authority who have failed to recognize their life safety obligations in housing children in structures which are “fire traps.”

Funeral for the nuns who died in the Our Lady of Angels fire (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-35437)

In fact, the Chicago Fire Department had inspected the school, just months before the fire, and found it legally safe. Despite the findings, the building was an accident waiting to happen. The inspectors must have seen its deficiencies. At the inquest into the fire, senior officials insisted that delayed notification was the primary factor in the death toll. It’s entirely possible. In any case, to single out the Fire Department for blame is too simplistic. The fact remains, the school was constructed before the Chicago Building Code, and thus exempt from the requirement of basic fire safety features. Why, it should be asked, were public buildings, especially schools, exempt? The politicians who grandfathered in such buildings were to blame, but so was the electorate who placed them in power and corruption in Chicago.

Moreover, there was the overcrowding. The school was an antique tinder box brimming with children, far beyond safe capacity, which virtually guaranteed a loss of life once the fire started. Many blamed the Catholic Church, which readily packed the classrooms. Why did the church allow it? Like most religions, it goes to lengths to increase its numbers. The Church would argue it was only serving its mission, which in education leads directly back to Jesus. Regardless, few were turned away.

Ultimately, the causes of the tragedy were so myriad and complex, each contributing in some unquantifiable degree, that we might as well say life caused the fire—which is another way, I suppose, of saying it was “God’s will”—a gloss for events that totally overwhelm our understanding. I encountered that expression used again and again as I researched the fire.

The rebuilt Our Lady of Angels school today (left), and a memorial of the 1958 fire outside the current rectory building (Rob Dorjath/Chicagoist)

It’s hard to understate the long-term impact and significance of the fire. An entire neighborhood shared in the tragedy. Even if families survived intact, most of them had relatives or close friends among the bereaved, and the community never recovered. “It destroyed the neighborhood,” one survivor, a fifth-grader in the school at the time of the fire, told the Sun-Times. “It destroyed the people. Parents couldn’t cope. Divorces, all kinds of family problems [resulted].”

Formalized crisis counseling—a given today—did not exist. Instead, people relied on the Church to guide them, except in this case the Church, staffed by traumatized nuns and clergy, was inextricably entwined in the matter. The Church was anxious to move on, and, according to many survivors, discouraged discussion of the tragedy. While certain parishioners drew more deeply on their faith, others lost theirs entirely. In 1960, the Archdiocese dedicated a new school on the former site, completely fireproof and thoroughly equipped with all the modern safety features—though it should be noted that none of the technology was newfangled, or non-existent at the time of the fire. When the new school opened, the majority of families returned, but many others decided to move rather than face daily reminders of loss.

The new Our Lady of Angels School, with new safety features (Francis Miller/Life Magazine)

Others fled the Humboldt Park area due to the rampant, predatory practice of blockbusting, whereby whites were panicked into dumping their homes by unscrupulous, race-baiting real estate speculators, who then flipped the properties at exorbitant rates to middle-class African Americans. In time, with repossessions and foreclosures, racial unrest and lack of opportunity due in part to racist hiring practices, the area grew poorer and poorer.

By 1990, with dwindling attendance, the Church permanently closed Our Lady of the Angels parish, and later the school, which is now a charter. As reported recently, Chicago remains deeply segregated, not only by race but by a new measurement, the Distressed Communities Index. These days, communities in the former Our Lady of the Angels parish—which drew from Humboldt Park, Austin, and West Garfield Park—rank in the highest decile of the index, which measures economic hardship and inequality.

Officially, the Our Lady of Angels fire was extinguished at 4:19 p.m. on that cold December day in 1958. But in a sense, it hasn’t been put out. The specter of the fire lives on in that distressed neighborhood, though many residents are unaware of the history and had no hand in writing it. Likewise, it lives in the hearts of those who survived the ordeal. They remain closely bonded to this day and want their story remembered. The survivors and the Archdiocese honor the anniversary each December, though the participants gather at the nearby Holy Family church instead of their former church, which is now a mission. The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels—an ongoing Catholic presence in the neighborhood—provides food, clothing, after school programming, and other material support for those in greatest need.

If nothing else, schools in the United States today are safe, at least from fire. But progress took a calamity. Following the Our Lady of the Angels fire, sweeping changes were made across the country to prevent another tragedy like it. Today, the death of a child by fire in a K-12 educational structure is nearly unheard of. But the price of safety proved high, especially for the Chicago parish that bore the cost. John Raymond, who survived the fire by jumping from a second-floor window, knows the fire’s price well. He’s the son of the school’s former janitor, James Raymond, a hero of the Our Lady of the Angels fire who rescued many children.

“Whenever I see an old red-brick school I think about it,” John said, speaking to the authors of To Sleep with the Angels. “And there are a lot of red-brick schools.” He added, “It’s a sacred place. You can feel something when you drive by there. It’s a part of history.”

Further information

For additional background on the Our Lady of the Angels Fire, read (or visit) the following sources used in this piece:

* To Sleep with the Angels, by David Cowan and John Kuenster
* Quarterly of the National Fire Prevention Association: The Chicago School Fire, January, 1959
* The Fire History Museum of Greater Chicago
* Archives of the Chicago History Museum

Robert Dorjath is a native Chicagoan and a fiction writer. He is currently working on a novel inspired by the Our Lady of the Angels fire.

Our Lady of the Angels: The fire that 'changed everything'

On Dec. 1, 1958, a fire consumed Our Lady of the Angels grade school on the West Side of Chicago, killing 92 children and three nuns.

A wire story from that day captured a fragment of the desperation:

"Max Stachura stood outside the burning building, begging his little boy, Mark, 9, to jump into his arms. Children were falling all about the father and he caught or stopped the fall of 12 of them. But little Mark was too frightened or he didn't understand his father. Mark didn't jump."

Fifty years later, Mark's mother has the day in crisp focus, and adds a missing detail.

As Mark stood at that second-floor window, fire to his back, he held a small statue in his hand and waved it proudly through the black smoke, hoping his father would notice. Mark had won the statue that day — a figure of an infant Jesus — for being first to answer a quiz question.

"I guess he was just so proud of that prize," said Mary Stachura, now in a retirement home in Bartlett. "I don't think he really understood what was happening."

Few of the children trapped in the school could have grasped the enormity of the danger they faced, and few of the panicky adults on the ground — parents and neighbors and firefighters — had time to reflect. They acted, grabbing ladders of all lengths from garages, reaching through broken windows to haul small, waterlogged bodies from the flames.

Max Stachura watched as other children pushed his son back, away from the window and into the flames. The boy was later identified by a homework sheet crumpled in his pocket.

Max rarely spoke of that day. He died suddenly of a heart attack at 52.

"He was much too young," said Mary, now 85. "That fire. It changed everything."

The fire at Our Lady of the Angels remains one of the worst tragedies in Chicago's history, a ghastly few hours on a cold, sunny afternoon that shattered families and knocked a hopeful, growing community forever off its path.

The cause of the fire was never officially determined, and no one was held accountable. Some parents who lost a child--or children-- found ways to blame each other and wound up divorced. Others sold their tidy two flats and moved away, hastening the flight of the middle class from the city's West Side.

"It seems as though people just couldn't get far enough away," said Jill Grannan, a curator at the Chicago History Museum. "That school and that parish is one that had a lot of people. It had a growing population. There was such a boom, and then people really just had to leave.

"I don't think the community ever really came back."

Few in the neighborhood now would recall the blaze. But for parents and firefighters, journalists and now-grown schoolchildren, the memories remain etched in intricate detail.

Steve Lasker, then a photographer for The Chicago American newspaper, was driving along Grand Avenue, heading to his newsroom after an assignment in Elmwood Park. He heard a call come over a radio tuned to the police frequency: "They're jumping out the windows!"

"But I didn't know where it was," Lasker said. A fire engine cut in front of him and he quickly turned to follow. He parked on Iowa Street and headed toward the smoke, stopping abruptly when he saw the school on Avers Avenue in flames.

"I froze for a few seconds, or maybe it was minutes, I don't know, I couldn't tell," said Lasker, now 78. "Oh my God, there's still kids in there. Mayhem was going on and they started pulling kids out of there left and right."

From atop a fire truck, Lasker shot one of the most iconic photos of the day. It showed a helmeted firefighter, his face drawn in sorrow, carrying the soaking wet, lifeless body of 10-year-old John Jajkowski Jr. from the building.

Just 28 and the father of a 6-month-old girl, Lasker felt his stomach churn as he watched the rescue through the lens of his camera. The cold wind froze tracks of tears on his face. Though many photos were published, 20 years would pass before he would voluntarily show them to anyone.

"I didn't want to re-live it," he said. "To this day I still have dreams about that horrible scene."

He held close to his family through the years, and was, perhaps, over-protective of his kids: "Tragedy hits home. Everybody's home."

Grace Riley never saw the fire, but she faced its aftermath in the worst of ways. She was 23 at the time, an emergency room nurse and a newlywed.

The first ambulance arrived without warning at St. Anne's Hospital that afternoon, carrying six boys from the 7th and 8th grades, and one 1st-grade girl. The doctors and nurses didn't know what had happened but immediately set to work, Riley caring for the little girl.

"I was cutting her clothes off and I hear her say, 'Oh nurse, my face hurts so bad.' And I looked up and her face was totally burned."

As more children were carted in, the acrid smell of burnt flesh became overwhelming — it sticks with Riley to this day. She helped place bodies of the dead on the floor so gurneys were available for the living.

"Ambulance by ambulance by ambulance, they just kept coming," Riley said. "It was just earth-shattering to look into a room and see all those little bodies, and to see the parents screaming, 'Where is my child? Where is my child?'"

Riley left emergency room nursing shortly after the fire. She just couldn't do it anymore.

Now 73 and a hospice nurse in Arizona, she recalled the day of the fire and how instead of assisting doctors with the injured she focused on cataloging the children who were dead on arrival. She carries guilt over that decision.

"I just couldn't bring myself to go up to pediatrics to help out. I just couldn't do it," Riley said. "As a nurse you're supposed to put your own feelings aside. But I could not handle the smell of burnt skin and the pain that these kids were going through."

Long after any wounds from the fire healed, after the bodies of the dead were honored in mass funeral services and schools across Chicago and the nation embraced new standards for fire safety, the pain lingers.

Ken Leonard was only 9 at the time, a 4th grader in room 210. He wound up on the window ledge, too afraid to jump, too scared to realize flames were burning the backs of his legs.

A fireman made it up a ladder and hoisted him to safety. He spent 10 days in the hospital with 2nd-degree burns -– his two brothers escaped the school unharmed.

The three Leonard boys would all go on to serve in Vietnam. Again, they all made it out alive. Ken wound up a firefighter in Oak Lawn, rising to become chief before he retired in 2001.

Throughout his career, he kept memories of the Our Lady of the Angels fire to himself, and he still struggles to speak of that day.

"When I first got in the job, I was trying to tell my co-workers the story, but I just couldn't do it," Leonard said, voice cracking. "I assumed as time went on, it would get easier. But it never does."

Some say they were able to put the tragedy behind them, though they speak in an uncertain tone of moving on. Others lament the lack of counseling in the wake of the tragedy, saying the custom of the time — to bottle up emotions and go on living — never allowed them to come to terms with their feelings.

And some still search for answers.

Robert Chiappetta, who survived the fire but lost his sister, Joan Anne, has spent the past 15 years obsessively researching a book about what happened at Our Lady of the Angels. Though no investigation ever found fault with the Catholic church, which ran the school, or with city fire inspectors, Chiappetta believes there was a widespread coverup.

"They had created a fire trap in there," he said, surrounded by court documents at his kitchen table in Elmwood Park. "People will see this was the crime of the century."

Chiappetta's parents, after searching several hospitals the night of the fire, found his sister's body near midnight in the Cook County morgue. She could only be identified by a gold chain around her neck, one her uncle had brought her from Italy.

In the weeks after the fire, after Mary and Max Stachura had buried their son, a nun from the school explained the statue Mark had been waving at his father. She gave Mary a similar one as a keepsake. Mary still has that statue. It's kept in a trunk in her apartment — like memories of that day, it's always nearby, just not in plain sight.

Sitting recently with her younger son, John, who was in a building at the school that didn't burn that day, Mary showed a cherished, sepia-toned class picture of Mark. She still has the shirt and tie he wore in the picture.

"I told John that when I die, bury that shirt and that tie with me," she said. "My little boy will always be with me."

Ninety students die in Chicago school fire - HISTORY

By 2:30 p.m., the fire had spread into the stairwells and the second floor corridor. The fire skipped the first floor where heavy wooden doors leading to the hallway remained closed. Hot air and gasses from the basement rose rapidly through an open shaft in a wall, ascended the two stories, and filled the cockloft above the second floor.

As the air above the second floor became superheated, flames sparked in the north wing of the school. The embers began falling into the second floor corridor through ventilation grilles. Combined with the dense smoke and gasses, the embers and ensuing flames made the second floor corridor impassable. The corridor was the only escape route for those on the second floor.

At 2:40 p.m., the fire came to the attention of someone at the school who put in a still alarm and box alarm to the local fire department.

As the hallway transoms exploded and hallway lightbulbs began to burst, the nuns and students found no way out of the second floor of the school. The thick, black smoke began to enter second floor classrooms around the corridor doors. The outside windows offered the only escape route and, for 329 children and 5 teaching nuns, the only remaining means of escape was to jump from their second floor windows to the concrete and crushed rock 25 feet below.

By now, the parish priests and some neighbors of the school arrived and attempted to help the terrified children and nuns out of the school. Reports indicated that a 74-year old heart patient managed to save several children before being overcome by a stroke and requiring medical attention.

Engine 85 arrived at 2:44 p.m. after being initially misdirected to the church rectory around the corner from the school, but, by then, the fire had been raging for at least 20-30 minutes. As firemen rushed to the scene, they ignored protocol and issued a 5-11 alarm calling for all available fire units. All available ambulances were also called to the scene.

The hellish conditions in some of the classrooms had become unbearable, and children were stumbling, crawling, clawing, and fighting their way to the windows, trying to breathe and escape. Many jumped, fell, or were pushed out before firemen could get to them. Some were killed in the fall, and scores more were injured. Many of the smaller children were trapped behind the frantic crowds at the windows, blocking any chance to escape through a window. Some of the little ones who managed to secure a spot at a window were then unable to climb over the three-foot-high window sills, or were pulled back by others frantically trying to scramble their way out. Helplessly, firemen watched in horror as classrooms, still filled with frightened children, exploded in flames instantly killing those who remained.

By 3:45 p.m. the firemen had the fire under control. The work of recovering bodies began. Firemen found 24 children at their desks in one room, their school books open before them. It was presumed that their teacher, knowing escape was impossible through the smoke-filled corridor, had told the children to await rescue. They obeyed and died, apparently when smoke overcame them or when the fire's heat exhausted the oxygen in the room.

According to reports by Dr. James Seagraves of St. Anne's Hospital where most of the injured children were taken, "Four to six of the youngsters were not expected to last the night. Many of the children's bodies had been broken when they jumped from second story windows. The flesh of others had been seared to the bone."

160 children had been rescued from the blaze with seventy-seven of those sustaining serious injury. Eighty-seven children and three nuns died on December 1, 1958. Three more critically injured children died before Christmas followed by two more in 1959, the last one on August 9. In the end, 92 children and 3 nuns perished, bring the ghastly death toll to a staggering 95.

Despite numerous hearings and investigations, offers of assistance from the FBI, and a focus on two chief suspects who both confessed and later recanted, no charges were ever brought with respect to the loss of life or the possible arson.

The tragedy did prompt changes in the building codes for schools including the requirement for automatic sprinkler systems, automatic internal fire alarm systems, and fire doors throughout school buildings. Nearly 68% of American schools implemented fire safety programs and code changes following the Chicago fire. While schools in many parts of the nation were being rechecked for fire hazards, officials of at least a half dozen cities arranged to come to Chicago to get a first hand account of the disaster of Our Lady of the Angels School. Among them were officials of New York, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Miami, San Francisco, and Cleveland.

A news article appearing within days of the fire lists the known dead:

CHICAGO, Dec. 1 - (AP) - Here is the list of dead identified in the Cook (Chicago) County morgue who perished in a fire Monday at the Our Lady of the Angels grade school. Ninety died and nearly 100 children were injured. Nine pupils still have not been identified.

Joseph Massidla, 11 Karen Culp, 10 Wayne Wise, 10 Marilyn P. Rech, 10 David Biscan, 11 Linda Malinski, 10 Patricia Kuzma, 10 Annette Mantia, 10 Karen Baroni, 9 Donald Mele, 10 Frank Piscopo, 12 Joseph Canella, 10 Barbara Hosking, 10 John Janjkoski (sic), 10 Joanne Ciolino, 10 John A Manganello, 10 Frank Piscopo, 12 Joseph Modiga, no age available.

Elaine Pesoli, 10 Janet Gasteier James Profita, 9 Linda Stabile, 9 Ronald Fox, 14 John D Trota, 13 Joann Chrzos, 9 William Sarno, 13 Jo Anne Sarno, 9 Rosalie Ciminello, 12 Rosanna Ciochin, 9 Charles Neubert, 9 Kathleen Magerty, 13 Jo Ann Chiappetta, 10 Roger Ramlow, 10 Eileen Pawlie, 13 Raymond Makomski, 12 Diane Karwaki, 9 Richard Bobrowicz, 13 Richard Kampanowski, 10 Peter Cangelosi, 10 Kenneth Kompanowski, 14 Kathleen Mary Carr, 9 Yvonne Pacini, 9 Angeline Kalnowski, no age available.

James Sickels, 10 Mary Virgilio, 15, Nancy Rae Finnigan, 14 Lawrence Grosso, 12 Michele Altobell, 13 Karen Margaret Hobek, 13 Mark Allan Stochura, 9 Milicent Corsiglia, 13 Maria Dijulio, no age available.

Nancy Mary Desanto, 9 Edward Nikinske, 12 Mary Finale, 12 James R Moravek, 13 Helen Ann Busiac, 12 Annette Lanantia, 10 Christine Vitacco, 12 Mary Ellen Moretti, 12 Nancy Riche, 12 Patricia Ann Drzymala, 12 Nancy Smid, 10 Peggy Sansonetti, 11 Margaret Kucan, 10 Robert Anglin, 10 Margaret Chambers, 9 Marge Lasala, no age available.

Richard Hardy, 9 Lawrence Dunn, Jr., 8 Antoinette Secco, 10 Phillip Tampano, 12 Aurelius Chiapette, 11 Mary Louise Tamburrno, 13 Frances Fuzaldo, 12 Nancy Pilas, 12 Carolyn Perry, 10 Antonnette Patrasso, 11 Sister Mary Seraphica Kelley, 43 Sister Mary Claire Theresa Champagne, 27 Sister Mary St. Canice Lynge, 44 Carol Ann Gazzola, 13 James Ragona, 9 Beverly Burda, 13 (tentative).

End of news article.

It should be noted that the majority of the classrooms consumed by the fire itself were on the second story and housed mostly seventh and eighth graders. At the time of the fire, just before the close of the school day, some of the 1,200 students were across the courtyard at the church. Nearly all of the first floor students escaped the blaze unharmed.

50th Anniversary of Chicago's Our Lady of Angels School Fire

Bethesda, MD (PRWEB) November 25, 2008

Shortly before the end of classes on December 1, 1958, a fire broke out at the Our Lady of Angels Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. The fire left 92 children and three nuns dead. Many others were seriously injured. This fire, which occurred 50 years ago, is still one of the deadliest school fires in the history of the United States.

"Poor fire protection design was a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries," said Chris Jelenewicz, Engineering Program Manager with the Bethesda, Maryland-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. "Additionally, many lives were lost because the fire burned out of control for a considerable amount of time before the children were notified that an emergency existed in the building."

At the time of the fire about 1,600 children -- grades kindergarten through grade 8 occupied the two-story brick and wood joist building.

The fire started in the basement at the bottom of one of the building's interior stairways. The open stairway did not have fire-rated doors at the top of the stair. As a result, the fire spread quickly up the stair into the second floor corridors.

"Once the fire started, the stairway effectively became a chimney -- allowing the hot smoke and deadly gases to spread quickly up this stair and throughout the second floor corridors," said Jelenewicz. "This prevented the occupants from exiting through the corridors which was the only safe escape route."

The fire department rescued many children with ground ladders or by catching those who jumped out the windows. Despite these efforts, many of the children died in their classrooms and others were forced to jump out windows to their deaths.

Moreover, the building was not equipped with a sprinkler system or an automatic fire alarm/detection system.

"Because of the delay in notification, the lack of adequate fire protection systems and the unprotected stairs, the occupants just didn't have enough time to get out alive," said Jelenewicz.

Additional contributing factors to the number of deaths and injuries included a delay in calling the fire department.

As a result of this fire, many building requirements were enhanced to make schools safer from fire. Some of these requirements include the installation of fire alarm and automatic fire suppression systems and increasing the frequency of exit drills.

"The Our Lady of Angels Fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire," said Jelenewicz. "The fact of the matter, however, is that today schools are much better protected. This is in large part due to the fire-safety strategies and systems designed by fire protection engineers that make our world safer from fire."

What is a Fire Protection Engineer?

According to the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, a fire protection engineer applies science and engineering principles to protect people, homes, workplaces, the economy and the environment from the devastating effects of fires. Fire protection engineers analyze how buildings are used, how fires start and grow, and how fires affect people and property. They use the latest technologies to design systems to control fires, alert people to danger, and provide means for escape. Fire protection engineers also work closely with other professionals, including engineers of other disciplines, architects, state and local building officials, and local fire departments to build fire safe communities. Fire protection engineers are in high demand. The number of available jobs far exceeds the supply.

About Society of Fire Protection Engineers

Organized in 1950, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers is the professional society for engineers involved in the field of fire protection engineering. The purposes of SFPE are to advance the science and practice of fire protection engineering, maintain a high ethical standing among its members and foster fire protection engineering education. In 2008, SFPE partnered with Discovery Education to create a new in-school program titled The Chemistry of Fire. Its purpose is to teach high-school students the science behind fire as a way for students to fully understand the dangers of fire.

52 Years Ago, Tragic Fire Plunged City Into Grief

CHICAGO (WBBM) – Fifty-two years ago Wednesday, just half an hour before classes were to let out for the day, a fire roared through Our Lady of the Angels School on Chicago’s West Side.

The fire heavily damaged the school, at 3808 W. Iowa St., killing 92 students and three teachers.

The fire remains one of the deadliest in Chicago’s history.

Those who survived the fire gather each year at Holy Family Church, at 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd., to offer prayers for those who died.

The nation’s fire codes were changed to enclose stairwells, install fire doors and require fire alarms directly wired to fire stations. Fire drills became a weekly event in many schools, particularly in Chicago.

The remnants of the old school building was torn down several months after the fire and replaced by a new building. The school closed in 1999, but much of it has been renovated into the Kelly Hall YMCA. Mass is still said in the adjoining church, which was not damaged by the fire, now known as the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.

Those who managed to get out of the wing of the school that burned said that they first realized something was wrong when smoke curled under the classroom doors and wafted through the glass transoms above the doors.

Firefighters take students from the fire at Our Lady of Angels School in 1958. (CBS)

The fire began at the foot of a stairwell, raced up the stairwell and through the second floor classrooms.

Bob Early was about to take garbage to the basement down that stairwell from his seventh grade classroom, in room 208, when he noticed smoke coming in under the door. He told the teacher, Sister Mary St. Canice, who was at the rear of the room. She opened the door, smoke billowed in, and she slammed the door.

No alarm had been sounded. The principal had set a policy that allowed only certain staff members to pull an alarm.

Early said that Sister St. Canice at first told the students to sit at their desks, but after a couple of minutes, she urged them toward the windows. Some began to jump. Several men brought ladders, but all proved to short to reach the windows. Early said a friend jumped ahead of him and broke both ankles in the fall. He crouched in the window sill, frozen, till the bricks became too hot to touch and he “sort of fell” to the ground.

When he looked back up he could see flames shooting form the windows of his classroom. Sister Mary St. Canice and a dozen of his classmates were still inside room 208.

Early said after a few moments he got up, walked about a block to a railing in front of a nearby store, and sat down. When a priest spotted him and told him to go home so his parents would not be worried, he stood up and fell on his face. He’d broken a leg in the fall.

Instead, a police officer put him in a squadrol, and he was taken to a nearby hospital, where he remained hospitalized for three weeks as the leg mended.

Early considers himself one of the lucky ones. Today, however, he still has one question that he cannot get out of his mind.

Now Presenting: Michelle Gibbons, Historical Presenter

Michelle Gibbons, a Marengo resident, historical presenter and Marketing Director for Jim Gibbons Historical Presentations, is making a name for herself teaching the importance of history. Through her passion for history and training from her father, Michelle debuted at several locations in 2019 and early 2020 with her popular program, “Following the Yellow Brick Road: The Life of Judy Garland. Michelle now offers a variety of programs both virtually and in person, including: The 1990’s, The 2000’s, The Life of Edith Head, The Life of Anne Frank, The Life of Helen Keller, and many more. In August 2021, she will also be launching a new program on The Life of Robin Williams.

Starting in 2012 as the Marketing Director, Michelle has helped her father’s business blossom into a full-time career. Today, Jim Gibbons Historical Presentations has presented over 120 programs to libraries, universities, colleges, park districts, senior organizations and more throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Prior to her father’s business, Michelle worked as an Editor, staff reporter and freelance writer for several newspapers, magazines and newsletters locally, nationwide and worldwide. Michelle received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Northern Illinois University in 2008 with double majors in Journalism and English and a minor in Political Science.

Following in her father&rsquos footsteps and using his slogan, &ldquoLife is no mystery when you know your history,&rdquo her goal is to not only teach the important parts of history, but to help others learn its value in today&rsquos society.

Now Booking "The Life of Robin Williams" program! Available Starting in August 2021. For more information click here!

  • “I just attended a South Suburban Adult Programmer (SSAP) meeting and told everyone how thrilled our patrons were with Jim Gibbons’ presentation. More
  • “Many thanks for an excellent presentation on Eleanor Roosevelt. The Morton Grove Library audience was enthralled with both your slides and detailed narrative. More
  • “I have heard nothing but excellent comments about Jim’s presentations on The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire. More
  • “You are the best! Not only do I learn so much, you make me smile with your enthusiasm and love for what you do. More
  • “On the behalf of Barrington Area Library, we would like to thank you for an outstanding program on “Our Lady of the Angels Fire”. Our patrons raved about your excellent program. More
  • “Mr. Gibbons, thank you for making history fun and enlightening. My son said that he really enjoyed himself. We had a great conversation about history on our way home from your presentation. If we had more educators like yourself, more students would excel in history. More
  • “The staff and students of Eisenhower High School (Blue Island, Illinois), were thoroughly impressed with your presentation that commemorated the 125th Birthday of President Eisenhower. The members of the Social Studies Department were inspired by your infectious enthusiasm and truly felt that the students could not have been more engaged. More
  • “Just a quick message to say how much I enjoyed your presentation on WWII that was given at the Alumni Center for Luther House here in Normal, Illinois last Thursday. I learned so much, and you had the audience in the palm of your hand! I hope I can hear you speak another time."
  • ". Some of our patrons comments your program last night included: “Amazingly knowledgeable” “This program was very informative and Mr. Gibbons did an excellent job” “Mr. Gibbons is very dynamic and passionate about his presentation” and “[The] history of WWII came alive!”

Download Planning Calendars!
2020-2021 Program Topics List (with photos)
2020-2021 Program Topic List (words only)

NOW OFFERING VIRTUAL PROGRAMS NATIONWIDE VIA ZOOM! Jim and his daughter, Michelle Gibbons, are now presenting his programs virtually! All 120 programs are now available to book through the virtual platform of Zoom to audiences from 1 to 500 plus nationwide. Call or e-mail Jim or Michelle at 815.572.1244 (Jim) or 224.622.9339 (Michelle) to schedule your program today!

Chicago's neighborhoods: the many sides of chicago

Building a Community: The Many Sides of Chicago

Historical Presenter Jim Gibbons will discuss the many sides of Chicago. Gibbons will break down each side of Chicago’s neighborhoods in a nine-part series, including: Chicago’s Central District, Near North Side, Far North Side, Northwest Side, the South Side, Southwest Side, Far Southwest Side, Far Southeast Side and the West Side.

Historical Presenter Jim Gibbons will discuss the highlights and attractions of each community. He will also explain the history of each neighborhood, its past and current development and its expected growth for the future.

Select the buttons below to read about the program specifics for each neighborhood.

We are booking up fast for virtual and in-person programs! There are brand new presentations available and in development for 2021 and 2022 via Zoom and in-person. Schedule your program today!

Posts Tagged Our Lady of the Angels school fire

An oversized, multicolored quilt, deemed the “Quilt of the Angels,” was draped over the altar at the Church of the Holy Family in Little Italy for Sunday’s 5 p.m. Mass. The names and ages of all 95 victims from the Our Lady of Angels School fire in 1958 are stitched on each patch.

Tuesday marks the 62nd anniversary of the Our Lady of Angels School fire that killed 92 elementary-school students and three nuns. On Sunday, about 50 people gathered for Mass at the Church of the Holy Family to remember the lives lost, the families of the victims, the survivors and the first responders.

During the ceremony, Larry Furio and his lifelong friend and fellow survivor, Frank Giglio, read off the names of each victim. The pain of that day still lingers. The event rocked the West Side and resulted in many grief-stricken families moving away.

This year’s memorial service almost didn’t happen because of the coronavirus, but organizers worked to ensure proper safety protocols were in place. Every other row of pews was roped off with brown-and-gold ribbon to ensure proper social distancing, and everyone in attendance wore masks.

Our Lady of the Angels anniversary

Posted by Admin in Fire Department History | Comments off

Saturday marked 60 years since 92 students and three nuns were killed in a fire at the Our Lady of the Angels school on Chicago’s West Side when a fire broke out in the basement of the school shortly before classes were dismissed for the day.

The victims were remembered at church services and other memorials across the city. Although much time has passed since 1958, the memories and the pain are still fresh. Each year, family members of those who lost their lives, along with survivors come together at Holy Family Church to remember and honor the victims.

Survivor Serge Uccetta was only 12 years old and a student at Our Lady of Angels at the time, but he was one of the lucky ones. The building was a firetrap. As the flames and smoke spread, the second floor corridor became impassable, leaving the windows – 25 feet above the ground – as the only possible escape.

Many survivors keep the experience to themselves, still too painful to share all these years later.

Our Lady of the Angels anniversary

Posted by Admin in Fire Department History | Comments off

Today is the 57th Anniversary of this tragedy

For five decades after the deadly blaze that killed 92 of his classmates at Our Lady of the Angels School, John Raymond rarely spoke about it. But in his mind, he relived the classroom growing hotter and hotter with no escape, Sister Therese Champagne telling students to kneel and pray, the panic as he clawed his way to a window. He remembers the release of diving out, free falling and landing on his side in a street strewed with other children’s broken bodies.

But recently, Raymond, of Mount Prospect, started talking to groups of students about the fire in Chicago 57 years ago on Tuesday. Speaking about his experiences and how the disaster changed fire codes across the nation has been healing, says Raymond, who recently visited Loyola Academy in Wilmette, St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights and Maine South High School in Park Ridge, among others.

“When you can talk to 300 kids and you can hear a pin drop, you’re doing a pretty good job,” he says.

The Elk Grove Public Library will host history enthusiast Jim Gibbons in a program about the fire at 7 p.m. today. Raymond was invited but says he’ll wait to see how his mood is before he decides whether to go.

Raymond says he’s luckier than his father, Jim Raymond, the school’s janitor who initially was blamed for “sloppy housekeeping” causing the blaze. Years later, a student confessed to setting the fire, and the cause was never officially determined. But Jim Raymond’s reputation suffered. “It really took a lot out of him,” John Raymond said.

Chicago Fire Department history – Commissioner Robert J. Quinn

The Chicago Tribune has an article about former Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn:

On Oct. 18, 1958, a bizarre-looking apparatus responded to a blaze at a lumberyard on Cermak Road, raised a steel arm hinged in the middle like an elbow, and revolutionized firefighting the world over.

“A fireman in a crow’s nest at the top of the tower directs the stream and gets his orders from below by observers using a walkie-talkie radio,” the Tribune reported.

Shortly, the new firetruck was lettered “Quinn’s Snorkel,” and with good reason. Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn’s brainchild enabled firefighters to stand firmly on a flat platform instead of precariously clinging to the top rungs of a ladder. Shortly after becoming commissioner in 1957, Quinn saw tree trimmers using an aerial platform and realized its potential for attacking fires. Other fire departments quickly followed Quinn’s lead.

In his 21 years as commissioner, the colorful and innovative Quinn was always good newspaper copy. He responded to fires wearing a battered old helmet. He equipped fire vehicles with radios, constructed humongous water cannons with fanciful nicknames like “Big Mo,” acquired helicopters that gave fire chiefs a bird’s-eye view of a blaze and established a photographic unit so fires could be documented and studied.

Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn regularly responded to fires wearing a battered old helmet. (Chicago Tribune file photo)

He was named commissioner by Mayor Richard J. Daley — the two were alums of Bridgeport’s Hamburg Athletic Club, a neighborhood hangout — though Quinn denied street corner loyalties got him the job. “We lived west of Halsted Street, and he (Daley) lived east,” Quinn told a Trib reporter, “and that made a difference in those days. You never had anything to do with the guys on the other side of the tracks.”

Either way, Quinn’s reign over the Chicago Fire Department corresponded with Daley’s reign over the city. He was eased out by Daley’s successor Michael Bilandic in 1978, though he wanted to serve another few months, making him a firefighter for half a century.

Quinn presided over major fires — including the horrific Our Lady of the Angels school fire in 1958, the one that destroyed the original McCormick Place in 1967 and the 1968 West Side riot conflagration — during years when fire deaths were all too common: 206 in 1963 (the worst in modern times), compared with 16 in 2013 (the lowest).

He also kept Chicagoans alternately amused and bemused with madcap antics and the tall tales with which he explained them. As a Tribune editorial noted when Quinn stepped down, he had provided “us all with a few special stories to tell friends from out of town.”

In 1969, a 19-year-old Irish immigrant was overcome by smoke in a Lake Shore Drive apartment rented by Quinn. He explained his presence at the scene by saying he went there from the Marina Towers apartment where he lived to direct firefighting operations. “I hadn’t been in the apartment for two years until last night,” Quinn said. He explained that he met her in Ireland while searching for his parents’ birthplace and helped her come to America. In some versions of the story, she was a distant relative in others, the friend of a friend.

When it was disclosed that a fire lieutenant was detailed to Quinn’s Wisconsin farm, he explained the officer was a good match for the assignment. “He’s really good with animals,” Quinn said.

When the White Sox clinched the American League pennant with a late-night victory in September 1959, Quinn set off the city’s air-raid sirens. At the height of the Cold War, some Chicagoans thought it signaled not a forthcoming World Series but an atomic Armageddon. “If the Sox ever win another pennant, I’ll do it again,” Quinn said.

Yet for all his goofiness, Quinn was a hero. In 1934, he climbed eight stories to rescue three civilians from a fire in a Loop building. The same year, he put a 200-pound woman over his shoulder and, with her clothing on fire, leaped 4 feet to an adjoining building. For that feat, he was awarded $100 as the Tribune’s hero of the month.

Serving in the Navy in World War II, Quinn was decorated for heroism during a three-day battle against a fire on a tanker loaded with aviation fuel.

He returned to Chicago convinced that a fire department should be run like a military organization. More than a bit of a martinet, he tried to introduce naval-style dress uniforms that his firefighters decried as “sailor suits.” A national champion handball player, Quinn subjected recruits to the physical-fitness regimen he followed. To publicize it, he sponsored a marathon run for firefighters from Chicago to what is now Naval Station Great Lakes that caused a massive traffic jam on the highway that he appropriated for the event.

A 1969 study faulted Quinn’s department for being slow to equip firefighters with the breathing apparatus that can make the difference between life and death. Quinn said the department couldn’t afford them.

He famously opposed switching from limousine ambulances to the boxy, modern vehicles, “apparently on the theory that a Chicagoan would rather die in style than be saved in the back of a panel truck,” the Tribune noted.

Quinn thought firefighters should be “he-men.” He told a reporter he was disgusted by pictures of firefighters with long hair in fire-industry publications. “If the good Lord wanted a man to look like a woman, he would’ve made him a woman,” he said. His racial views were equally antediluvian. He answered critics who said his department discriminated against African-American firefighter applicants by saying blacks “don’t like heat and smoke.”

In the years since, whole doses of Quinn’s approach to firefighting have been abandoned. Although Chicago still runs his beloved snorkels, other cities have scrapped them in favor of telescoping ladders with aerial platforms.

A bit of advice he gave to recruits 40 years ago is still worth pondering. A firefighter, he noted, must be ready to go instantly from sitting around the station to hopping on a rig, prepared to put his own life at risk to save another’s.

“When you get out in the field, you’ll be sitting on your ass for a long time,” he said. ” Be ready to go to work. Pay attention to the rules. Compete in sports. Stay in shape. Get your hair cut. And for Christ’s sake, be men.”

The Fire that Killed 92 Innocent Children Leads to Extensive Life Safety Reforms Nationally.

There have been many fires with greater loss of life than the fire at Our Lady of Angles School in Chicago in 1958. For example, in 1903 the fire at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago took 602 lives. However, this school fire was very, very sad because it killed 92 innocent children and 3 adults all of whom could have been saved. It led to major improvements across the United States for numerous school facilities that potentially offered similar disasters.

This was not the only school fire that created great sadness and led to changes in fire protection for schools. But the lessons learned move very slowly and did not reach many other schools. None of these other tragedies had the same national impact on school safety as did the fire at Our Lady of Angels School.

  • In 1908 a fire at the Lake View Elementary School in Collinwood, Ohio claimed 175 lives, of which 172 were children.
  • During a play being conducted on May 7, 1923, stage props toppled a lantern that led to a fire at the Cleveland Rural Grade School near Camden, South Carolina. That led to the death of 67 people, including 41 children.
  • During the annual Christmas songfest on December 24, 1924, a Christmas tree caught fire at the Babb Switch School in Hobart, Oklahoma. The tragedy took 36 lives, mostly children, and injured 37 others.


The period was the late 1950s in Chicago, which had a population of about 3 million. The number of immigrants and blue-collar workers in Chicago neighborhoods had grown. Many residents were highly religious, having brought their strong affiliation with their churches as places for anchoring their faith and lives while struggling to live the American dream and to give their children a better chance for their future. There was a high demand for education, especially in parochial schools.

About half of Chicago’s population was Roman Catholic. The Archdiocese of Chicago, included 424 parishes, 399 elementary schools, 37 high schools, 21 hospitals and many other institutions.

The Chicago fire commission had jurisdiction for about 800,000 buildings including those of the 404 public and 493 parochial schools in the city.

Our Lady of Angels Parish and School

There were about 4,500 families involved with Our Lady of Angels Parish in the western part of Chicago. The parish members lived in a 150-block area. Sixty percent were Italian, thirty percent Irish and ten percent Polish or other Eastern Europe ancestries. There was a strong sense of community and families were important. Figure 1 provides a layout of the parish facilities. In addition, there was convent for sisters involved in the parish and school on the south side of Iowa Street.

General layout of Our Lady of Angels facilities. There was a convent for nuns on the south side of Iowa Street.

The school was originally constructed in 1910, but several additions and modifications had occurred over the years. It offered education for students from kindergarten through eighth grade. When school began in the fall of 1958, there were 1,668 students enrolled. Some applicants had to be turned away. There were 20 nuns who taught in the school and 9 lay teachers.

Kindergarten and first grade classes were housed in buildings separate from the main school. The main school with its two wings, north and south, contained 24 classrooms. The wings were separated by a space between them, while an “annex” connected the two wings. There was a basement and two, high-ceiling floors in each wing. Each classroom had two doors leading to a corridor. Each door was about seven feet high with a two-to-three foot high, glass-panel transom above.

The school buildings had brick exterior walls, but interior floors, stairs and walls were primarily wood and ceilings had combustible ceiling tile. Floors had numerous coats of flammable floor wax accumulated over time.

Typical classroom in Our Lady of Angels School.

The Fire and Response

The fire occurred in the North Wing and mainly affected the second floor. The second floor of the North Wing had six classrooms for students age 9 o 14 in grades 4 though 8.

Classroom layout on second floor, North Wing.

The table below lists the student occupancies, number who died and number who were injured from burns and falls
Sources vary slightly in the final counts.

Room Number Number of Students Deaths Injured
207 0 1 0
208 47 12 13
209 2 8 0
210 57 28 15
211 48 24 17
212 55 26 21

The Source

Investigations following the fire identified the likely location for the start of the fire. In a north-east corner of the basement in the North Wing near the NE stairs that was rarely used, there was a small trash barrel. Investigators estimate that the container held papers that got ignited and the fire progressed to the wooden stairs and structure above.

The Fire’s Progress

The fire progressed up the NE stairs that extended to the second floor. There was no enclosure for the stairs, so flames and smoke moved quickly to the second floor and entered the corridor that opened directly to the stairs. In addition, there was an open space in the wall in the basement for a pipe chase that went from the basement to the cockloft space above the second floor classroom ceilings. Both routes acted much like chimneys and allowed heat and flames to move rapidly toward the upper levels of the building.

The Fire Time Line

The fire occurred near the end of the school day, which normally ended at 3:00 pm. Below is the approximate time line for the main events related to the fire.

2:00-2:20 pm – Estimated time for the start of the fire.

2:25-2:30 pm – Estimated time smoke was first noticed by students.

As was the custom, some teachers assigned students to collect trash from their rooms and carry the waste baskets to the basement. There, in the main part of the basement, they dumped the trash into a designated waste container. Upon returning to their room via a different staircase, three eighth-grade girls from Room 211, encountered thick, grey smoke, entered their classroom and reported their finding to their teacher.

2:30-2:38 pm – Estimated time the janitor, James Raymond, saw a red glow while walking by the building.

Upon entering the boiler room in the school basement, he confirmed his fears upon seeing through an ajar door into the stairway where he saw the raging fire. Two boys from Room 205 were in the boiler room emptying waste paper baskets and also learned of the fire. They all rushed out. Raymond ran to the rectory next door where there was a phone and yelled to the housekeeper demanding that she call the fire department because the school was on fire.

2:41:30 pm – Time of first call to the fire department.

The rectory housekeeper, Nora Maloney, called the fire department to report the fire. She had trouble providing the details. When asked for the fire location, she gave the address for the rectory on Iowa Street, while the main fire was nearly half a block away on North Avers.

2:42 pm – Approximate time the fire alarm sounded throughout the school.

A boy in Room 206 (South Wing) asked permission to go to the bathroom. As he left the room, he smelled smoke and his teacher right behind him also smelled the smoke. They both went back into the classroom. The teacher told the students to stay while she went next door. The smoke was growing darker and hotter. At Room 205, she conferred with that teacher about what to do. The school policy stated that only the school principle could turn on the fire alarm that sounded within the school only, not to the fire department. The principle, the sister superior, was not in her office on second floor of the South Wing. The teacher returned to Room 206 and told her students to get up and follow her out of the building. Both teachers evacuated their classrooms. Before exiting, the teacher tried to activate the fire alarm switch. It did not sound an alarm. After exiting, the teacher took the two groups of students to the church sanctuary, while the second teacher returned to try the alarm switch. It worked and the alarm sounded throughout the school. The switch was much like a light switch, located about six feet above the floor.

2:43 pm – Estimated time candy store owner called the fire department from her residence.

A business mas was driving by the school and happened to slow down at the alley north of the school. His eye caught smoke rolling out of the rear stairwell door. He stopped and went into the candy store that was just north of the school to see if they had a phone. The owner, Barbara Glowacki, had one in the rear residence, but was reluctant to disclose that to this stranger and answered that she did not have a phone. After he left, she stepped outside and looked around the corner of her store to see smoke and flames pouring out of the school doorway. She hurried back to her residence and anxiously called the fire department. When she reported that Our Lady of Angels School was on fire, the operator stated that someone had called already and help was on its way.

2:44 pm – Estimated time first fire unit arrived at the school, first at the rectory address.

The fire alarm office located in the Chicago City Hall assigned the first response to the fire station located about 5 blocks from the school. The response included Engine Company 85, Ladder Company 35, Rescue squad 6, and the 18 th Battalion chief. When nearing the address, they could see thick black smoke, but quickly realized they received the wrong address for the fire as they passed the rectory. Then they slowly maneuvered the equipment to the North Wing at Ames Avenue, passing through the crowd of hundreds of students, nuns, lay teachers, neighbors and parents already outside at the scene.

Upon sending a response notice to Engine Unit 85, the city fire alarm office had initiated a standard informative notice to all other fire units in that area of the city. When Engine Unit 85 learned the scope of the fire and found trapped students jumping from second floor windows of the North Wing, the Battalion Chief called for additional support

Overhead view of fire and heavy smoke.

2:55 pm – Approximate time that a portion of the roof and second floor ceiling collapsed onto second floor classrooms.

The fire that had migrated to the space between the ceiling and roof had burned for nearly one-half hour. The roof had at least five layers of roofing and roofing tar, accumulated over the years from repairs. The slow burn kept the heavy, black smoke and heat buildup in the second floor. The thick layers prevented a burn-through that would have vented the heat and flames much earlier.

2:57 pm – Estimated time the 18 th Battalion fire chief on the scene called for a 5-11 alarm in spite of all normal procedures.

Overall, 43 fire fighting vehicles responded to the fire, along with about 200 firemen, 70 police squadrons and many ambulances. Heroic firemen rescued 160 children.

The battle to save lives. Note too-short ladders.The battle to save lives. Note too-short ladders.

This photo of a rescued child received worldwide coverage (photo by photographer Steve Lasker).

Shortly thereafter, there were estimates of as many as 5,000 onlookers, parents, relatives, and others who had gathered at or near the school. Many were anxiously and hysterically looking for their children or grandchildren.

Part of the crowd of onlooking parents, neighbors, officials, and others.

Onlookers included parents and others filled with grief and anxiety over the missing and dead.

A Battle for Lives

There are countless stories of students, staff, firemen, neighbors, police, medical and others involved in this extreme tragedy. The stories tell about very sad, emotional, heroic and disturbing parts of the event as it unfolded and its aftermath. This article can only cover a few.

Students and teachers in the South Wing escaped unharmed, as did those on the first floor of the North Wing. Each teacher on the second floor dealt with the evolving conditions using their best judgement. For many students, panic set in when they realized they could not escape through the second floor corridor because of the growing density of the excessive smoke and flames and the unbearable heat. Even in the classrooms, the heat from the corridor and the ceiling where fire raged above it added to the panic. The density of smoke darkened the classrooms. Open transoms allowed smoke to pour in. In one case the fire and heat broke the transom glass.

The only remaining escape routes were the classroom windows. The windows also were the sole source of breathable, smokeless air. Opening them added to the chimney effect of the heat and fire, increasing the heat, smoke and flames in the classroom air.

The idea of jumping to the ground posed additional fears, since the distance from the windows to the asphalt in the courtyard on the south side or the concrete on the north side was approximately 25 feet. In addition, the distance inside a room from the floor to the windowsills was about 27 inches, Especially for the children in the lower grades, climbing to a windowsill was a difficult, daunting task. Potential access for breathing or escape by jumping became even more complex as children competed hysterically for a spot at a window. In some cases children slipped and fell to the floor while others climbed on top of them. Many were screaming or yelling for help from the open windows. A few began to jump.

Irene Mordarski, a seventh grader, sat in the back of Room 208. As the fire grew more intense, she joined other students at a window fighting for breathable air. Today was the first day she had ever worn nylon stockings to school. Over them, she wore a pair of ankle-length socks. As the temperature in the room grew intense and unbearable, she could feel the nylons melting to her legs. When a suspended ceiling light crashed to the floor, the room became engulfed in flames. She scrambled to the window, climbing over other classmates, some who were dead. She was able to access the sill and hung on the outside just as a backflash of flame blew into her face. She fell unconscious, fracturing her pelvis in two places. Her legs had second and third degree burns from her knees to the top of the anklets.

Barbara Glowacki, the candy store owner who had called the fire department, returned to the side of the school next to her store. Some who were at the open windows of the second floor classrooms, knew her and called, “Barb, please help!” Then she thought of her daughter who was in second grade on the first floor. She ran through the Ayers Street entrance into the school, looking and screaming for her daughter. After learning that her daughter’s teacher had gotten her class out of the building, Barbara returned to the alley where those on the second floor had called to her. Soon children began jumping. They were injured, many were burned. Some had clothes burning. Those who were motionless or could not move, she dragged to the candy store side of the alley. Some ran inside her store and got a pot of water to help extinguish burning clothes. In the cold, 20 degree weather, she walked some into her store. In panic she finally learned that her daughter had escaped and had gone to a neighbor’s house.

Mario Camerini grew up in the neighborhood and had gone to Our Lady of Angels School. As he passed by he saw seventh graders hanging from the windows in Room 208. He knew there were some ladders in the garage behind the rectory and went to get one. As he dragged an extension ladder to the alley, another neighbor, Max Strachura, who had boys in the school, came by to get them as the school day would be closing. He helped Mario with the extension ladder, placing it against the school wall a window for Room 208. Seventh graders began pouring out the window and down the ladder.

Max’s son, Mark, was in fourth grade in Room 210 next door. The heads of fourth grade students barely extended above the window sill. Engulfed by black smoke, some children reached the sill and soon began jumping. Max yelled for Mark. Soon a head appeared at the window yelling, “Daddy!” Mark wanting to jump. Max yelled, “Don’t jump!” Then Max ran to his own garage nearby, got another ladder and set it against the school wall. Max’s heart dropped, it was too short. His son yelled to him again. Max said this time, “Jump, I’ll catch you!.” Mark tried once again to pull himself through the black smoke onto the sill. However, he fell back as a blast of flames knocked him back from his position at the sill. That was the last time Max saw Mark alive.

Hook and Ladder 35 arrived at the burning school. They had to break through the locked gate along Avers Street that secured the courtyard that separated the North Wing and the South Wing. They positioned a 26-foot ladder at the window of Room 211, which housed eighth graders. The crew leader was Lt. Charles Kamin. Part of his crew positioned seldom-used nets that soon became overwhelmed with children jumping into the nets. Kamin climbed the ladder to assist panicking students stuck at the window. He could feel the heat burning his face.

He saw the first student, a girl. Holding onto the ladder with one hand, he grabbed the girl around the waist, pulled her out through the window and swung her around so she could grasp the ladder and climb down herself. Because he knew from experience that the smoke-filled air was so hot that is would soon flash, he worked desperately. He grabbed boys, one at a time by their belt, pulled them out, swing them around hoping they would grab the ladder and escape. If not, they would fall, but rescue was more important than a physical injury.

Numerous firemen who operated fire hoses trying to extinguish the fire or sought to gain access to the building and complete rescues also had stories of heroism. Others worked to create holes in the roof so the heat and flames could vent from the second floor corridor and classrooms. At the time firemen did not have air-supplied respirators to aid in accessing burning spaces, which made any kind of rescue extremely difficult in this extensive blaze.

Firefighters rescued as many as possible.

First responders and volunteers placed the burned and injured children in vehicles and rushed them to nearby hospitals. The closest hospital was over a mile away, but it soon became overwhelmed with emergency patients.

Room 209 with collapsed roof after fire was out.

North Wing corridor after fire was out.

The Aftermath

After the fire was extinguished, firemen entered the charred classrooms and found dead bodies, sone sitting at desks and others piled below window sills. In one room they found several bodies lying together with the body of the nun in charge lying on top trying to protect them. Some bodies were charred beyond recognition. Slowly, they removed bodies. Sending identifiable victims to funeral homes and unidentified victims to the city morgue.

An attempt was made to create a list of students and where they might be located. Many parents sought to find their children, racing from hospital to hospital. Because of the number of dead bodies, the morgue had to create special procedures for identifying bodies using clothing descriptions, items found in possession, and similar means to aid in the process. Once parents recognized the identifying object or characteristic, officials led them to the line of sheet-covered bodies to make an official identification. In a few cases the charring was so bad that identification was extremely difficult or impossible.

Unidentified bodies lined up in morgue.

The Catholic officials and parish priests held a mass funeral for 27 victims at an Illinois National Guard Armory.

Mass funeral for 27 at Illinois National Guard Armory.

The Cause

As noted, investigators established the location of the fire origin. However, there was no conclusive evidence for the cause. They obtained confessions from a few boys who on occasion secretly smoked cigarettes there or had observed others smoking there, but no cigarette butts were found. While many believed the fire had been set by someone, the official fire marshal’s report states the cause was “undetermined.”

Three years later in 1961, police apprehended a troubled and problem boy in his early teens who was suspected of setting several fires in Cicero, a Chicago suburb where he lived. He admitted that he loved fire trucks and hung around for the fire department response after setting a fire. During interrogation, the police learned that he had previously lived in Chicago and attended Our Lady of Angels School at the time of the 1958 fire. He confessed to setting the fire, but said he had no intention of it ever growing so large. After extensive juvenile court proceedings and arguments over evidence, the boy was never convicted of setting the fire at Our Lady of Angels School.


The school arranged for temporary facilities for a couple of years while the burned building was rebuilt and the parish dedicated the new school in 1960. Over the next few decades the community changed significantly and eventually Our Lady of Angels parish closed.

Families, firemen, other first responders, neighbors and many other who witnessed or participated in the very sad events surrounding the fire never forgot their experiences the rest of their lives.

School Fire Standards

Part of the story surrounding this fire involves the standards for schools intended to protect children from harm. In 1949 Chicago adopted a fire code for schools. The code applied to new construction and existing buildings were exempt. Our Lady of Angels School, completed in 1939 had undergone an inspection by the supervisor of Catholic diocese schools only week prior to the fire. There were many deficiencies from a fire protection perspective.

The National Fire Protection Association led a national effort with help from many state and local governments to evaluate current school fire safety and to establish and implement improved standards for new and existing buildings. NFPA reported that within one year following the fire at Our Lady of Angels School there were major improvements in life safety at more than 16,500 schools in the United States. The national publicity about the fire helped open the eyes of for many communities.

Watch the video: Students die in Chicago school fire December 01, 1958 This Day in History