Fire at Our Lady of the Angels School kills 92 students and 3 nuns
On December 1, 1958, a fire broke out in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels catholic school in Chicago, educational home to approximately 1,600 students in Kindergarten through 8th grade.
The school was a two story structure built in 1910 but remodeled and added to numerous times in the intervening years. While legally in compliance with the fire safety laws of the time, the school was woefully unprepared for any kind of fire. There was only one fire escape, no sprinklers, no automatic fire alarm, no smoke or heat detectors, no alarm connected to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells and no fire-safe doors from the stairwells to the second floor. While the building's exterior was brick, the interior was made almost entirely of combustibles - stairs, walls, floors, doors and roof - all wood. The floors had been coated and re-coated many times with flammable petroleum based waxes. There were NO fire alarm switches in the north wing, and only two in the entire school, both located in the south wing. While there were four fire extinguishers in the north wing, they were mounted 7 feet off the floor, out of reach for many adults and virtually all of the children. The single fire escape was near one end of the north wing but to reach it required passing through the main corridor, which became filled with suffocating smoke and superheated gases. With its 12-foot ceilings, the school's second floor windows were a daunting 25 feet from the ground, should someone decide to jump. Thus, the scenario for a tragedy was set.
The fire started in the basement sometime between 2:00 and 2:20 that cold December afternoon, in a cardboard trash barrel at the foot of the northeast stairwell. The fire burned undetected for an estimated 15 to 30 minutes, gradually filling the stairwell with super hot gases and smoke. In the intense heat, a window at the foot of the stairwell shattered, giving the smoldering fire a new supply of oxygen. The wooden staircase itself burst into flames and, acting like a chimney, sent super hot gases, fire and smoke swirling up the stairwell. The first floor landing was equipped with a heavy wooden door which effectively blocked the fire and heat from entering the first floor hallway. But the second floor landing had no doors - the fire, smoke and heat were free to roam the second floor halls at will. As the fire was climbing (consuming) the stairway, a pipe chase running from the basement to the cockloft above the second floor false ceiling gave the superheated gases a direct route to the attic, where the temperature rapidly rose higher and higher until it finally reached ignition temperature. Almost as though planning a coordinated attack, the fire swept through the halls of the second floor in the north wing of the school, and flashed through the cockloft above the classrooms. By the time the students and their teachers in the second floor classrooms realized there was a fire, their sole escape route (the center hallway) was all but impassable. 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, or to pray for the fire department to arrive and rescue them before it was too late. Recognizing the trap they were in, some of the nuns encouraged the children to sit at their desks or gather in a semi-circle and pray. And they did - until the smoke, heat and flames forced them to the windows. But there were no firemen to rescue them. Some began jumping - others fell or were pushed.
Was It Arson?
Although the cause has never been officially determined, all indications point to arson. A boy (age 10 at the time, and a fifth grader in room 206) later confessed to setting the blaze, but subsequently recanted his confession. He was more afraid of confessing to his mother and step-father than to the police.
The boy confessed to setting numerous other fires in the neighborhood, mostly in apartment buildings. In his confession, he related details of the fire's origin that had not been made public and that he should therefore not have known. While there was strong evidence that he was indeed the culprit, neither he nor anyone else was ever prosecuted, at least in part because the catholic judge in the case felt he should protect the Church.
Officially, the cause of the fire remains unknown.
The fire began in the basement of the older north wing between about 2:00 p.m. CST and 2:20 p.m. Classes were due to be dismissed at 3:00 p.m. Ignition took place in a cardboard trash barrel at the foot of the northeast stairwell. The fire smoldered undetected for an estimated 10 to 30 minutes, gradually heating the stairwell and filling it with a light grey smoke that eventually became thick and black [see Progression of the fire: Stage 1]. The smoke began to fill the second floor corridor, but remained unnoticed for a few minutes.
At approximately 2:25 p.m., three eighth grade girls, Janet Delaria, Frances J. Guzaldo, and Karen Hobik, returning from an errand came up a different staircase to return to their second floor classroom in the north wing. The girls encountered thick smoke, making them cough loudly. They hurriedly entered the rear door of Room 211 and promptly notified their teacher, Sister Helaine O'Neill, who was not yet aware of the smoke. O'Neill got up from her desk and began lining up her students to evacuate the building. When she opened the front door of the classroom moments later to enter the hallway, the intensity of the smoke caused O'Neill to deem it too dangerous to attempt escape down the stairs leading to Avers Avenue on the west side of the building. She remained inside the classroom with her students, awaiting rescue. The fire continued to strengthen, and several more minutes elapsed before the school's fire alarm rang [see Stage 2].
About this same time, a window at the foot of the stairwell shattered due to the intense heat, giving the smoldering fire a new oxygen supply. The wooden staircase burst into flames and, acting like a chimney, sent hot gases, fire, and black smoke swirling up the stairwell [see Stage 3]. Approximately at this moment, the school’s janitor, James Raymond, saw a red glow through a window while walking by the building. After racing into the basement furnace room, he viewed the fire through a door that led into the stairwell. After warning two boys who were emptying trash baskets in the boiler room to depart the area, Raymond rushed to the rectory and alerted the housekeeper to call the fire department. He then immediately raced back to the school to begin evacuation via the fire escape. The two boys meanwhile had returned to their class and warned their lay teacher, which prompted her and another lay teacher to lead their students out of classrooms in the annex area of the second floor. The lay teachers had looked in vain for the school principal before deciding to act on their own to vacate the school. As they left the building, the teacher pulled the fire alarm, but it did not ring. Several minutes later, after leaving her students in the church, she returned to the school and activated the alarm on the second attempt. This alarm rang inside the school, but was not automatically connected to the fire department. By this time, however, the students and teachers in the north wing classrooms on the second floor were essentially trapped, whether they knew about the fire or not.
Despite Raymond's hasty visit to the rectory soon after 2:30 p.m. to spread the alert, there was an unexplained delay before the first telephone call from the rectory reached the fire department at 2:42 p.m. One minute later, a second telephone call was received from Barbara Glowacki, the owner of a candy store on the alley along the north wing. Glowacki had noticed flames in the northeast stairwell after a passing motorist, Elmer Barkhaus, entered her store and asked if a public telephone was available to call the fire department. Police initially thought this 61-year-old man was a suspect in the blaze until Barkhaus came forward and explained himself. Glowacki used the private telephone in her apartment behind the store to notify authorities.
 Fire spreads upstairs
The first floor landing was equipped with a heavy wooden door, which effectively blocked the fire and heat from entering the first floor hallways. However, the northeast stairwell landing on the second floor had no blocking fire door. As a result, there was no barrier to prevent the spread of fire, smoke, and heat through the second floor hallways. The western stairwell landing on the second floor had two substandard corridor doors with glass panes propped open (possibly by a teacher) at the time of the fire. This caused further drafts of air and an additional oxygen supply to feed the flames. Two other doors were chained open when they should have been closed; these doors were at the first and second floor levels leading into the annex. The upper door was quickly closed, but the lower one remained open throughout the conflagration.
As the fire consumed the northeast stairway, a pipe chase running from the basement to the cockloft above the second floor false ceiling gave the superheated gases a direct route to the attic. In the attic the temperature rapidly increased until it reached ignition point [see Stage 4]. The fire then swept down through ventilation grates in the second floor corridor and flashed through the cockloft above the classrooms [see Stage 5]. Glass transom windows above the doors of each classroom broke as the heat intensified, allowing flames in the hallway to enter the classrooms [see Stage 6]. By the time the students and their teachers in the second floor classrooms realized the danger, their sole escape route in the hallway was impassable.
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, or to pray for the fire department to arrive and rescue them. Recognizing the trap they were in, some of the nuns encouraged the children to sit at their desks or gather in a semi-circle and pray. Smoke, heat, and flames forced them to the windows. One nun, Sister Mary Davidis Devine, ordered her students in Room 209 to place books and furniture in front of her classroom doors, and this helped to slow the entry of smoke and flames. Out of the 55 students in Room 209, eight escaped with injuries, and two perished; Beverly Burda, the last student remaining in the room, died when the roof collapsed. Another student, Valerie Thoma, died at a hospital on March 10, 1959.
 Rescue attempts
Fire department units arrived within four minutes of being called, but by then the fire had been smoldering unchecked for possibly 40 minutes. It was now fully out of control. The fire department was then hampered because they had been incorrectly directed to the rectory address around the corner on West Iowa Street; valuable minutes were lost repositioning fire trucks and hose lines once the true location of the fire was determined. Additional firefighting equipment was summoned rapidly. In 1959 the National Fire Protection Association’s report on the blaze exonerated the rapid response of the Chicago Fire Department and its initial priority to rescue pupils rather than merely fight the flames.
 Locked gate delays rescue
The south windows of the north wing overlooked a small courtyard surrounded by the school on three sides, and a seven-foot iron picket fence on the fourth side facing Avers Avenue. The gate in the fence was routinely locked. Firemen could not get ladders to the children at the south windows without first breaking through the gate. They spent two anxious minutes battering the gate with sledgehammers and a ladder, before it finally gave way. The gate delayed the rescues of rooms 209 and 211.
 Escape through windows
Firemen began rescuing children from the second floor windows, but nightmare conditions in some of the classrooms had already become unbearable. Children were stumbling, crawling, and fighting their way to the windows, trying to breathe and escape. Many jumped, fell, or were pushed out the windows before firemen on ladders could reach them. Children jumped with their hair and clothes on fire. Some were killed in the fall, and scores more were seriously injured. Many of the smaller children were trapped behind frantic students at the windows. Some younger students who managed to secure a spot at a window were then unable to climb over the high window sills, or were pulled back by others frantically trying to scramble out. Firemen struggled desperately to pull students and nuns from windows as classrooms partially filled with screaming children exploded. Firemen noticed that the white shirts of children in the windows changed color and turned brown.  A wide portion of the school's roof collapsed.
 Neighbors give assistance
Glowacki took injured children into her candy store beside the school to escape the winter chill while they awaited medical attention. Neighbors and parents raced into the school to rescue students on the lower floor or erect ladders outside that proved to be too short for the second floor. 74-year-old Ed Klock suffered a stroke while attempting to assist the children. Residents of houses along Avers Avenue opened their doors to provide sanctuary and warmth for coatless children from the lower grades.
 Nuns rush to offer help
Inside the burning school, a quick-thinking nun rolled petrified children down a stairwell when fear made them freeze. Injured students were rushed to five different hospitals, sometimes in the cars of strangers. Priests from the rectory raced to the scene, grabbing frightened students and escorting them through the smoke to the doors. One of the priests, Father Joseph Ognibene, along with the help of Sam Tortorice, a parent of one of the students, was able to rescue many students by passing them through a courtyard window on the second floor into the annex.
 Death toll climbs
Local radio and television reports quickly transmitted the news across a stunned city. WGN-AM radio broadcast continuous updates of the fire with Chicago Police Officer Leonard Baldy providing observations from an overhead helicopter. Panicked mothers and fathers left their homes or work places and raced to the school. Mothers pleaded to enter the burning structure. An anxious crowd of more than 5,000 parents and onlookers had to be held back by police lines during the five-alarm fire. This number grew in the late afternoon as news of the disaster spread and bodies of victims were slowly and carefully removed by firemen. It was first hoped that fatalities might be relatively low, under the mistaken belief that the fire alarm had been sounded early enough. The toll climbed quickly once the blaze was partially extinguished and firemen were able to explore the building. National television networks interrupted their regular programming to announce details as the scope of the disaster widened.
Between the delayed discovery and reporting of the blaze and the misdirection of the response units to the wrong address, the firemen arrived too late, but this was not their fault. Although they rescued more than 160 children from the inferno, many of the students carried out were already dead. Some of the bodies were so badly charred that they broke into pieces while being picked up.
OLA Fire Memorial