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The Our Lady of the Angels School Fire broke out shortly before classes were to be dismissed on December 1, 1958, at the foot of a stairway in the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois. The elementary school was operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. A total of 92 pupils and 3 nuns lost their lives when smoke, heat, and fire cut off their normal means of escape through corridors and stairways. Many more were injured when they jumped from second-floor windows (which were as high as a third floor would be on level ground).
The disaster was the lead headline story in American, Canadian, and European newspapers. Pope John XXIII sent his condolences from the Vatican in Rome. The severity of the fire shocked the nation and surprised educational administrators of both public and private schools. The disaster led to major improvements in standards for school design and fire safety codes.
The fire has been chronicled in two books and an Emmy-winning television documentary, Angels Too Soon, produced by WTTW Channel 11 Chicago. The History Channel also featured the disaster in the television documentary Hellfire, which was an episode in the cable network's "Wrath of God" series.
Our Lady of the Angels was an elementary school comprising kindergarten plus eight grades. It was located at 909 North Avers Avenue in the Humboldt Park area on the West Side of Chicago, at the intersection of West Iowa Street and North Avers Avenue (Some sources describe the school as "in Austin"). The school was located in a mostly Italian-American middle class community; the community held several second and third generation immigrant groups, including Italian Americans, Polish Americans, Irish Americans, and German Americans. Most members of the community were Roman Catholic.
The facility was part of a large Roman Catholic parish which also consisted of a church, a rectory which was adjacent to the church, a convent of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary which was across the street from the school on Iowa Street and two buildings on Hamlin Avenue which housed kindergarten and first grade classes. The school was the educational home to approximately 1,600 students. The north wing was a two-story structure built in 1910, but remodeled several times later; the building originally consisted of a first-floor church and a second-floor school. The entire building became a school when a newer church facility opened in 1939. A south wing dating from 1939 was connected in 1951 by an annex to the north wing. The two original buildings and the annex formed a U-shape, with a narrow fenced courtyard between.
The school legally complied with municipal and state fire codes of 1958, and was generally clean and well-maintained. Those codes did not address hazards present in the building which would not be tolerated today given a modern understanding of fire safety. Each classroom door had a glass transom above it, which provided ventilation into the corridor and also permitted flames and smoke to enter once heat broke the glass. The school had one fire escape. The building had no automatic fire alarm, no rate-of-rise heat detectors, no direct alarm connection to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells, and no heavy-duty fire doors from the stairwells to the second floor corridor. At the time, fire sprinklers were primarily found in factories or in newer schools, and the modern smoke detector did not become commercially available until 1969.
In keeping with city fire codes, the building had a brick exterior (to prevent fires from spreading from building-to-building as in the Great Fire of 1871). Its interior was made almost entirely of combustible wooden materials—stairs, walls, floors, doors, and roof. Moreover, the floors had been coated many times with flammable petroleum-based waxes. The building also possessed acoustical tile ceilings. There were two unmarked fire alarm switches in the entire school, and they were in the south wing. There were four fire extinguishers in the north wing, each mounted seven 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 in this case rapidly became filled with suffocating smoke and superheated gases. Students hung their flammable winter coats on hooks in the hallway, rather than in metal lockers. There were no limits to the numbers of children who could be educated in a single classroom, and this number sometimes reached as many as 64 students. The school did not have a fire alarm box outside on the sidewalk. With its 12-foot ceilings and an "English-style" basement that extended partially above ground level, the school's second floor windows were 25 feet above the ground, making jumping from the second floor risky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fire.
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 flashover occurred.
The fire then swept down through ventilation grates in the second floor corridor and flashed through the cockloft above the classrooms. Glass transom windows above the doors of each classroom broke as the heat intensified, allowing flames in the hallway to enter the classrooms. 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 wait 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 semicircle 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 until rescuers arrived. Out of the 55 students in Room 209, eight escaped with injuries, and two died; 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.
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.
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 they managed to smash it by backing a fire truck into the gate. The gate delayed the rescues of rooms 209 and 211.
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, and the massive downward rush of heat would probably have instantly killed anyone remaining in the second-floor classrooms.
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.
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.
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.
Children who initially survived the fire were taken to the following hospitals:
The cause of the fire was never officially determined. A boy, age 10 and a fifth grader at the time of the fire, confessed in 1962  to setting the blaze and subsequently recanted his confession. He was more afraid of confessing to his mother and stepfather than to the police. He also confessed to setting numerous other fires in the neighborhood, mostly in apartment buildings. This boy had been excused from his classroom to go to the boys' toilet about 2:00 p.m. on the day of the fire. This was roughly the time that the fire began to smolder in the bin at the base of the stairwell. After the incident, a fire investigator found burned matches in the undamaged sacristy area of a chapel located in the basement of the north wing.
In his confession and lie-detector test, the boy related details of the fire's origin that had not been made public and that he should not have known. Neither he nor anyone else was ever prosecuted. After further investigation, a court concluded that evidence to substantiate the confession was lacking.  He died in 2004. Officially, the cause of the fire remains unknown. An arson attempt on parish facilities in June, 1958, had burned itself out and nobody was injured.
Our Lady of the Angels School passed a routine fire department safety inspection weeks before the disaster. The school was not legally bound to comply with all 1958 fire safety codes due to a grandfather clause in the 1949 standards. Existing older schools, such as Our Lady of the Angels, were not required to retrofit the safety devices that were required by code in all schools built after 1949.
In 1959 the National Fire Protection Association’s report on the blaze blamed civic authorities and the Archdiocese of Chicago for allowing "fire traps" - in their words - such as Our Lady of the Angels School to be legally operated despite having inadequate fire safety standards.
The funeral for the three nuns took place first. A Requiem Mass was offered in Our Lady of the Angels Church after more than 2,000 parishioners paid their respects to the deceased teachers as the closed caskets lay in repose in the convent. A color guard of 100 policemen and firemen accompanied the coffins into the church. More than 100 nuns from the order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary attended from across Illinois as well as from their main convent in Dubuque, Iowa. The funeral procession had several hundred vehicles. The three teachers were interred side by side in a grave next to other nuns of their religious order at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in suburban Hillside, Illinois.
For the young victims, a Solemn Requiem Mass and funeral service took place at the Illinois National Guard Armory abutting Humboldt Park, as the parish church was not large enough to accommodate the huge crowd. Cardinal Francis Spellman, Archbishop of New York, came to Chicago to lend his support. Many of the young students were buried in the "Shrine of the Holy Innocents" plot at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, which is adjacent to Mount Carmel Cemetery. A monument there lists the names of all 95 victims. Some of the students were buried in other cemeteries: 18 in St. Joseph Cemetery, 18 in St. Adalbert Cemetery, 12 in Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1 in St. Nicholas Cemetery, and 1 in Norway Cemetery in Norway, Michigan.
A relief fund was set up to assist distraught families and to care for injured children in future years. The Chicago metropolitan area rallied to provide support. Hollywood stars such as Jack Benny visited injured children in hospitals. A city newspaper, The Chicago American, devoted its entire front page on December 5, 1958, to photographs of the deceased students under the headline, "Chicago Mourns".
In Vatican City, Pope John XXIII sent a telegram to the Archbishop of Chicago. The cable read, in part, "We have been profoundly saddened to learn of the tragedy which has befallen the school of Our Lady of the Angels. We express from the heart Our deepest sympathy with the parents. To the families thus sorely stricken We impart Our apostolic benediction ......" Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Chicago, the Most Reverend Albert Gregory Meyer, toured the school ruins with Mayor Daley, and he nearly collapsed while visiting the hospital and morgue. Mayor Daley would later be an advocate of fire safety in schools across his city, whether public or private.
The December 15, 1958, issue of Life Magazine printed a major article about the fire, containing many pictures and reconstructed drawings of the classrooms. The first page of the article featured an image of Richard Scheidt, a firefighter, carrying the body of 10-year old John Michael Jajkowski, Jr. from the building. The photograph of John, a fifth grader in Room 212, later served as a fire prevention safety poster nationwide. John, an accomplished musician, played the accordion and served as a church choir member. Before his death, John had expressed a desire to become a priest.
Like 25 of his other classmates, John suffocated to death from black, oily smoke. Steve Lasker took the photograph of Scheidt and John as the fire department was beginning to achieve control over the fire.
After the Our Lady of the Angels School fire, Percy Bugbee, the president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) said in an interview, "There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded." Sweeping changes in school fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide. Some 16,500 older school buildings in the United States were brought up to code within one year of the disaster. Ordinances to strengthen Chicago's fire code and new amendments to the Illinois state fire code were passed. The National Fire Protection Association estimated that about 68% of all U.S. communities inaugurated and completed fire safety improvements after the Our Lady of the Angels fire, one of which being an increased number of law-mandated fire drills throughout the academic year. In addition, fire investigators came from as far away as London to study the lessons that could be learned. The City Council of Chicago passed a law requiring that a fire alarm box be installed in front of schools and other public assembly venues. The interior fire alarm systems of these buildings must be connected to the street fire alarm box.
OLA students attended classes that were taught by their teachers in nearby public school facilities, including John Hay School, until the new Our Lady of the Angels School was finished in time for the school year beginning in September 1960.
The ruins were dismantled in 1959 and a new Our Lady of the Angels School, located at 3814 West Iowa Street, was constructed with the latest required fire safety standards, such as a sprinkler system. The modern three-story building with 32 classrooms plus a kindergarten opened in September, 1960. Donations from around the world helped to fund the new construction. As a result of declining numbers of students during the 1990s, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the school once the Class of 1999 graduated. The archdiocese had previously closed the other buildings of the parish in 1990 and merged it with another parish. The OLA building is currently leased to Galapagos Charter School.
Many films, such as Planet 51 and Toy Story 3, have scenes that mimic the world-famous image of John Jajkowski's lifeless body being carried from the school by a fireman, although in these films the person or thing being carried is usually still alive.
The documentary film Our Obligation, made by the Los Angeles Fire Department, is a dramatization of a "similar" disastrous school fire, explaining all the safety measures that should have been in place and functional. The filmmakers stated that the school in the film is not supposed to be OLA, but most of the details are identical, down to the iconic image of the dead student being carried out by the fireman. This film was produced in 1959 during fire tests being made at Robert Louis Stevenson Junior High School located at 725 S. Indiana St. in East Los Angeles. The building (built in 1926) was scheduled for demolition due to seismic concerns, so the LAFD used a three-story section for the tests. The school building was replaced with a one-story structure.Our Obligation is available for free viewing and downloading at the Internet Archive.
The fire at Our Lady of the Angels School was the third highest death toll from a disaster in an American school building, with 95 lives lost. The greatest school disaster, the New London School explosion, occurred March 18, 1937, when at least 298 died in a natural gas explosion in New London, Texas. The other major school disaster claimed 175 lives in the Collinwood School Fire in what is now Cleveland, Ohio, on March 4, 1908.
The Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925, killed 69 students in several school buildings across three Midwest states; the highest single toll was the school in De Soto, Illinois, where 33 children were killed as walls collapsed during the tornado.
The school explosion in Bath, Michigan on May 18, 1927 killed 38 students, three teachers, and three others after the mentally deranged school board treasurer wired dynamite under the school building, causing the explosion and killing himself.