Chicago was once considered the transportation hub of the United States. Many rail lines intersected in Chicago and ironically it is also where the Pullman labor dispute took place. When the 18th Amendment banned the sale, production and the consumption of alcohol, Al Capone, and organized crime flourished during the 1920s. Chicago is not a stranger to difficult times particularly when it comes to fires. Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle lead to passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 requiring proper inspections and sanitary conditions in Meat packing plants. That stories setting was a meat packing plant in Chicago. In 1871, a fire broke out in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’ Leary. Once the fire was finally contained (thanks to the help of mother nature) the fire claimed 300 people dead, 100,000 people were homeless, and the estimated cost of property damage was somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. The origin of the fire was unknown. The Our Lady of the Angels fire was yet another challenge that the city of Chicago would have to face in a post World War II era and the cause of the fire was also undetermined.
In the early 1900s, schools saw an increase in their student population. The influx of immigrants, lead to an increased population in urban areas. Laws begin to change as well. New laws that benefited children included an end to child labor (thanks to the work of labor unions) and the need for educating our youth. In the early 1900’s, the once tiny one-room, single story schoolhouses started to transform into multi-room and multi-story buildings. These structures were built with little or no fire protection or life safety features incorporated into their design. The reason for this is that the technology just did not exist. Another reason for having these factors left out was that most standards and model codes did not exist at the time or that their scope was limited. An ever-increasing population within the community soon contributed to classrooms becoming overcrowded, which gave the appearance of “human stockyards”. These facts combined with the lack of fire protection and life safety features added up to a deadly combination referred to as the “Disaster cocktail”, which had already been stirred (Withthecommand.com).
On December 1, 1958, shortly before classes were to be dismissed, a fire broke out at the foot of a stairway in the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois. Ninety pupils and three nuns at this Roman Catholic grade school lost their lives when smoke, heat, and fire cut off their normal means of escape through open stairways and corridors. Seventy-seven were seriously injured. The media who covered the fire made little mention that responding units encountered a “shit storm” upon arrival and were responsible for saving the lives of 162 people, these accomplishments were made when the City of Chicago and the Roman Catholic Church school system lacked the progressive mindset they may have helped to save lives before the fire broke out.
At approximately 2:25 P.M., the fire broke out in some combustible materials at the bottom of the rear stairway of the north wing in the Our Lady of the Angels school. The possible cause of the fire is officially unknown however a pupil “sneaking a smoke” in this stairway is one possible cause and has become the popular theory. At 2:25 P.M., the teacher of Room 206 started two of her pupils on the normal routine of taking the class wastebaskets down to the boiler room incinerator. The pupils returned at 2:30 to say that they smelled smoke. The teacher ran to room 207 to ask another teacher what she should do. The teacher in room 207 ran down the corridor to the principal’s office in the middle of the south wing to alert her. The principal was not there and was substituting for a sick teacher on the first floor. The school’s policy was to notify the Mother superior of an incident such as a possible fire so that she could pull the fire alarm alerting those in the building to evacuate. According to the fire department, the housekeeper’s call was its first notification of the fire. This call was received at 2:42 P.M., suggesting that she may have delayed placing the call. The standard response to a telephoned alarm-one engine, one ladder truck, one rescue squad and a battalion chief was dispatched.
In the initial five or ten minutes, the fire burned before discovery and it developed rapidly. Burning was greatly intensified when the window in the stairwell at basement level was broken by the heat, permitting a good supply of fresh air to enter the fire area. Hot fire gases and smoke billowed up the chimney-like stairwell and mushroomed through the second story corridor at ceiling level. From all available indications, there was no actual burning in the second story at the time second story occupants first noticed smoke.
The population of the second floor at the onset of the fire was 329 students and six nuns. All the classrooms had noticed the smoke by now. In two of the classrooms, it is believed that the nuns ordered the children to remain seated and to pray that God would send the firemen to save them. Some over the years has disputed this fact. In the book “Blaze: The Forensics of Fire”, Nicholas Faith states that “rumors” spread (after the fire), that the nuns had imposed a fatal inaction on their pupils, by having them pray at their desk when they could have escaped. Nicholas Faith with the use of forensic science has concluded that the children and nuns had no chance to escape from the U-shaped structure (NFPA report).
The children rushed the windows and many began to jump in order to escape a certain death. Escape for the children, was hindered due to the bottom edge of the window being thirty-seven and one-half inches high. This obstacle alone became overwhelming for many children to overcome. Many of the children died instantly, some while still seated at their desks. Others fell dead as their clothes and hair ignited spontaneously while awaiting rescue at the windows sills. Others also perished in their leap from the second story and many others were severely injured.
The fire department arrived at a scene after relocating only to find what has been described as “A great and indescribable horror.” The first in company requested a 5-11 alarm. This request dispatched all the cities medical units to the location of the school fire. The 5-11 request made by the engine company officer was a direct violation of the 5-11 request protocol of the Chicago Fire Department. Civilians and fire department personnel using ground ladders made many attempts at rescuing the children. The roof of the school soon fell inward and further attempts at saving these young lives was an attempt at futility. Any children left in the windows soon disappeared into the flames or vanished from sight (Angels too soon, 2003).
Many members of this tight-knit community either saw or heard what was happening at the school. Children who made it out of the fire ran to a nearby neighbors house to seek refuge. Others rushed to the school to try and make a desperate rescue by throwing ladders up to the school or catching children who jumped from second story windows.
After any tragic fire, there is a normal path of progression that people experience. After the fire many felt sorrow, when people began to come to grips as to what happened they then want proclamations and reforms to prevent such a thing from happening again, finally, people want to point a finger at someone and have someone claim responsibility for the tragedy. Officially, the fire has been reported unsolved although there have been explanations to suggest otherwise. During a fact-finding investigation, many wanted to point the finger to the custodian John Raymond (who saved 30 people) due to the fact that there were gaps in the timeline that he told investigators. Three years later, during an investigation of fires in a nearby neighborhood, the police detained a troubled 13-year-old who confessed to fires that he set in the neighborhood and he confessed to setting the Our Lady of the Angels fire. In court, the boy denied setting the fire and his defense attorney along with his family claimed that the confession was obtained under coercion.
The police were convinced that the 13-year-old boy was their suspect. Not only because of his behavior but also because he failed a polygraph exam. Many felt that the judge who exonerated the boy was feeling pressure from the Catholic Archdiocese. The judge may have been feeling the pressure that he put on himself but not wanting to convict a teen of such a heinous crime. If the boy was found guilty the church would have to claim some responsibility for the boy’s behavior and his whereabouts when the fire was started. That was a responsibility the church was not willing to take in anticipation of lawsuits.
The investigation did conclude that the Our Lady of the Angels School and the city of Chicago was responsible for the enormous loss of life and injuries. Many reforms were to follow the fire including sprinkler systems and improved construction for schools. With not enough oversight to make sure that schools were in compliance the city of Chicago had to step in to strictly enforce the new standards.
Our Lady of the Angels reopened its doors again in 1960. To this day there is no memorial of any sort on the school grounds to serve as a reminder of what happened on a cold December day in 1958. Much was learned from this fire that was not exclusive to improved fire codes. Since Posttraumatic Stress Disorder had not been identified yet there was no stress debriefing for firefighters and very little counseling for the students and teachers of the school. It was an incident that many did not talk about and were forced to repress. The church’s failure to properly explain why they do not have any sort of memorial on the school grounds commemorating the event may be some sort of indication on how they feel about it.