Note: Photos and images from www.olafire.com
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.
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.
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.
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|
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 18th 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
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 18th 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Catholic officials and parish priests held a mass funeral for 27 victims at an Illinois National Guard Armory.
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.
- David Cowan and John Kuenster, To Sleep With The Angels – The Story of a Fire, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1996.
(Note: This is a very good, detailed account of many aspects of the fire story. The authors had interviewed children, school administrators, parents, residents of the neighborhood, fire fighters, government officials, reporters, photographers, parish personnel, church officials and others. This is a recommended read!)
- Rebecca C. Jones, The School’s on Fire!: A True Story of Bravery, Tragedy, and Determination. Chicago Review Press, 2018.
- John Kuenster, Remembrances of the Angels: 50th Anniversary Reminiscences of the Fire No One Can Forget, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2008.
- John Brodston, Avers and Iowa: The Our Lady of the Angels Chicago School Fire. Amazon Digital Services, 2017.
- Michele McBride, The Fire That Will Not Die, ETC Publications, 2004 (First published in 1979; This is a first person, emotion-filled account by a burn victim who survived.)
- Robert Chiappetta, The Immaculate Deception, Page Publishing, 2015. (Written by a survivor who lost his sister in the fire and is critical of a system that failed to protect children.)
- Elizabeth Kern, Fire Angles: A Novel, Chicago Review Press, 2016. (An historical novel based on the fire.)
- Jay Shefsky, Producer, Angels Too Soon, DVD available from: http://www.wttw.com/angelstoosoon (Documentary won an Emmy Award.)
- Chester I. Babcock, “The Chicago School Fire,” NFPA Journal, January 1959, pp. 155-178.
- Chester I. Babcock, “What Progress Since the Chicago School Fire?,” NFPA Journal, January 1960, pp.181-192.
(Note: This is a very comprehensive site with resources covering the fire, aftermath, personal experiences, photos, videos, and many other elements of the event and it’s aftermath.)
Other School Fires
- Lakewood School, Collingwood, Ohio
- Babbs Switch School, Hobart, Oklahoma
- Cleveland Rural Grade School, Kershaw County, South Carolina