A Brief History
On December 1, 1958, a terrible fire roared through a Chicago parochial school called Our Lady of the Angels, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 92 children and three of the nuns on staff. Operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the school became instantly infamous as the leading headline in the United States and around the world. The sole bright side of the tragedy was that the shocking death toll and subsequent enormous publicity resulted in many safety reforms for American schools. On October 13, 2013, we ran an article titled “10 Religious Activity Disasters (What Do They Mean?)” discussing the glaring topic of why bad things happen to good people. Is a disaster such as Our Lady of the Angels Fire an act of a vengeful God? Was the tragedy merely God allowing people to make their own decisions which turned out to be bad for all those kids? Were people in Chicago being punished for something they did wrong? Was the catastrophe part of a Divine plan, part of a “big picture” too big for mere humans to understand? Or was the terrible loss of life not incidental to anything related to religious factors? We are pretty sure people are willing to debate all these theories and debate them fiercely.
A typical Catholic grade school, OLA held classes from Kindergarten through the 8th Grade. The student body was comprised of 1600 students and the school situated on the city’s West Side, formerly mostly Irish, but transitioning to mostly Italian with other European immigrants (such as German and Polish) in the preceding decades. This section of Chicago, sometimes referred to as “Austin,” was a mostly Catholic area. The school was part of a parish church that included the main church, a rectory, and a convent as well as the school. The kindergarten and 1st Grade classes were held in a separate building from the rest of the school, and that building was not involved in the fire.
The OLA school was apparently a fire trap but was in compliance with state law as it had been exempted from modern fire safety measures because of a “grandfather clause” in the state fire codes for schools. The construction of the building contributed to the spread of smoke and fire, and only 1 fire escape was present, a problem since the building had a raised basement which made the second floor as high off the ground as a normal third floor. The height of the second floor became a factor when many students had to jump 25 feet from second floor windows leaving dozens seriously injured. (The surface leapers had to land on was cement.) The fire escape that did exist was located off the main hall where smoke and crowds of people could easily stop any quick retreat from the fire. No automatic fire alarm, no smoke detectors (an innovation not readily available at the time), and no link to the fire department if a fire alarm was pulled. Also absent were water sprinklers, another feature not normally found in older schools at the time, though new schools were being built with sprinklers.
Construction of the school building was deceptive, with a brick exterior to help prevent building to building spread of fire, but with highly flammable interior materials such as wood. Cellulose ceiling tiles and wooden floors coated with flammable varnish and wax did not help! With no lockers for students, the kids had to hang their coats on hooks in the hallways, making the hallways fire traps as well. Perhaps the goofiest feature of the “fire safety” measures was having the 4 fire extinguishers found in each wing located 7 feet above floor level! Incredibly, the height of the fire extinguishers meant many people (even adults) could not readily reach the devices. The nearest outside fire alarm was a block away.
The deadly fire started in the basement of the North wing in a trash barrel, slowly gaining in size but remaining unnoticed for at least 20 minutes. The hot gases and smoke traveled upward through a pipe to the second floor where the fire found fresh kindling and spread. As smoke filled the hallways before the classrooms, the smoke went unnoticed for a while, meaning when it was finally noticed, the hallways were filled with thick smoke, choking people and preventing visibility. Coughing and gagging students and teachers (often nuns) were prevented from using the hallways and stairwells to escape, resulting in the leaping from the second floor windows that led to so many injuries. As glass interior windows shattered from the heat, the fire and smoke spread to classrooms and other areas. Incredibly, a giant roll of “tarred paper” was present, a roll 30 inches wide and 24 feet long that also ignited and contributed to the smoke and flames. The varnish and wax on the floors burned with toxic fumes that is believed to have caused many of the fatalities. A janitor outside the building noticed the red glow of the flames through a window and yelled for another person to call the fire department. Some teachers hesitated to evacuate their students without word from the school’s principal, but finally saw that they could wait no longer. A teacher pulled the fire alarm on the way out of the building, and as luck would have it, the alarm did not go off! A return several minutes later to pull the alarm again got the recalcitrant device to work, but with no connection to the fire department the effort was basically useless.
Meanwhile, the pipe that had been the early conduit of the super heated gasses from the basement to the false ceiling of the second floor allowed the ceiling of the building to ignite, a roof that had been re-tarred many times and presented an excellent source of fuel for the fire. Being a religious institution with nuns as teachers, it is not surprising that some of the nuns had the children sit at their desks and pray for deliverance when the exit through the hallways was obviously impassable. Apparently, the prayers could not get the fire department rescue people to the disaster fast enough, so jumping out the windows became the only choice between survival and death.
Once notified, the fire department arrived in a rather quick 4 minutes, but delays in detecting the fire and calling the fire department meant the fire had been burning for at least 40 minutes before the firemen arrived. Compounding the series of unfortunate events was confusion over the address to respond to, and the initial fire personnel responded to the rectory address instead of the school. First responding fire units quickly grasped the enormity of the situation and a “5 Alarm” call went out for all available fire and rescue units. Fire fighters made rescue of persons a priority over fighting the flames, a decision that was later found to be the correct choice. Rescue efforts were further hampered by locked fence gates meant to deter vandals, that ended up preventing firemen from getting ladders to classroom windows quickly.
Neighborhood people also responded to assist in any way they could, taking cold and terrified students indoors out of the cold and helping with rescue attempts. A 74 year old man heroically helping suffered a stroke for his efforts. News of the fire spread as quickly as the flames, and the incident became local, national, and finally international news. A news helicopter was also on the scene, not a common sight in those days. While about 160 children had been rescued by fire fighters, the 92 kids and 3 nuns that died ranged from being totally unburned (dead from smoke inhalation) to charred chunks that fell apart when picked up.
The cause of the fire remains unknown to this day, although in 1962 a student who was 10 years old in 1958 confessed to setting the fire. His confession was not confirmed by investigators, and the veracity of his statement remains unverified. In 1959 the report of the National Fire Protection Association laid serious blame on both the people that ran the school as well as local government officials for allowing a “fire trap” to exist in a school filled with children. Built before the 1949 fire codes for schools had been enacted, OLA was not required to meet those standards and in fact had passed a routine fire department safety inspection only weeks before the tragedy.
Life Magazine featured a prominent article about the horrible fire and numerous cultural references have been made alluding to the tragedy. Several books have been written about the fire, and Jonathan Cain, a student of OLA at the time of the fire and later the keyboardist for the rock band Journey wrote about the event in his own autobiography. Cable television’s History Channel covered the event in their episode “Hellfire” in their “Wrath of God” series. Sadly, the OLA fire was not even the worst American school fire ever, with only just more than half the fatalities as the Collinwood School Fire (Cleveland, Ohio) of 1908 in which 172 students, 2 teachers, and 1 rescuer died. Was the terrible Our Lady of the Angels School Fire truly the “Wrath of God?” Do people have “free will” or are all of us controlled by a preordained “Divine Plan?” You tell us.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever heard of or read about the OLA fire? Have you ever been present at a school fire? Do you attribute massive fatalities and disaster at a religious institution or activity as a “sign from God?” New fire safety laws were implemented after the OLA disaster…What measures would you like to see implemented as mandatory safety features at schools? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Brodston, John. Avers and Iowa: The Our Lady of the Angels Chicago School Fire. Amazon Digital Services, 2017.
Jones, Rebecca. The School’s on Fire!: A True Story of Bravery, Tragedy, and Determination. Chicago Review Press, 2018.
Kuenster, John. Remembrances of the Angels: 50th Anniversary Reminiscences of the Fire No One Can Forget. Ivan R Dee, Inc., 2008.
The featured image in this article, a photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran (Carptrash at English Wikipedia) for en:Our Lady of the Angels School Fire of a monument to the victims in the Queen of Heaven Cemetery by sculptor Corrado Parducci, transferred from to Commons by Beren using CommonsHelper, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.