Fire at Our Lady of the Angels (12-1-1958)

The Chicago Fire of 1871 killed 200 people.  On this date, a single fire claimed nearly half as many lives.  It happened at a Chicago grade school.

Our Lady of the Angels is a Catholic church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West Side.  In 1958 the three-story parish school had about 1300 students.  Most of them were second-generation Italian and Polish.

Sometime after 2 p.m., a fire started in a waste barrel near the bottom of a stairwell.  Evidence suggest it smoldered for some time before being discovered.  By then it could not be contained.

The school had recently passed a safety inspection, but standards were different in 1958.  The building had no sprinkers, only two fire alarms, and limited exits.

Once the flames began spreading, some teachers were able to lead their classes to safety.  Others weren’t so fortunate.  The corridors were soon jammed with panicked children.  Many tried to escape by jumping out windows.  A few teachers kept their students in the classroom, waiting to be rescued.

There was no 9-1-1 number then.  Emergency calls went through the regular switchboard, so there was some delay notifying the fire department.  When the fire-fighters did arrive, they rose heroically to their task, and saved many lives.

But the final death toll was 95–92 students and 3 nuns.

The OLA fire stunned the city and the nation.  Over the next weeks, newspapers and magazines printed hundreds of pictures of the blaze and its aftermath.  Perhaps the most poignant was a photo from one of the funeral Masses–at the altar rail was a row of small, white caskets.

The victims’ families, and the survivors, have struggled to deal with the tragedy.  Fifty years ago, no one spoke of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In 1994 my wife Terri was one of the organizers of a workshop for those whose lives were affected by the event.  Afterward, a special memorial Mass was conducted by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

Some years after the fire, a former student confessed to starting it, but later recanted the testimony.  That person is now dead.  Officially, the cause of the OLA disaster remains undetermined.




4 Responses to “Fire at Our Lady of the Angels (12-1-1958)”

  1. 1 Garry December 1, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    What do you mean that calls went through the regular switchboard?
    The fire department emergency number was FI[re] 7-1313.
    The police number was PO[lice] 5-1313.

    Don’t forget that a number of children died because one idiot nun kept the children in the room & told them to pray, instead of trying to escape.

    Also, many of the fire department’s ladders were too short & the papers didn’t publish those photos until much later. Supposedly they didn’t want to inflame the situation.

    Also, if I remember, the stairs burned because they were made of wood, which had been illegal in public schools since before 1900, but most likely the Catholic Church bigfooted the city council to not require the change to steel or concrete stairs.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt December 1, 2014 at 6:59 pm

      That’s the point–there was no three-digit emergency number (9-1-1) then. The emergency numbers then used–the ones you mentioned–were seven-digit numbers that went through a regular switchboard. For more on the fire, see To Sleep With the Angels, by Cowan and Kuenster.

  2. 3 Sharon Novickas December 12, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    I went to a CPS school, Esmond, that had wooden stairs. It was also a firetrap. In defense of one of the nuns, by the time she realized that there was a fire, the stairs were impassable with smoke so thick it looked solid rather than gas. Another nun had the presence of mind to roll her kids down the stairs. There were no fire doors, many layers of varnish on the wooden floors, and as someone said no sprinklers. There also were no metal lockers. Children hung their (flammable) coats in a coat room. We did the same at Esmond. The fire regulations had grandfathered in the older schools. A good book that was well researched is “To Sleep with the Angels.” A couple of families lost more than one child. I just can’t imagine a well of grief that deep.

  3. 4 Sharon Novickas December 12, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    One more comment: the official death count for the Chicago Fire was 300–170 bodies found and another approximately 130 from word of mouth. The actual number was probably much higher, because the heat was enough to fuse steel safes, which means that many bodies were probably cremated. Since we had so many single male immigrants, undoubtedly many just disappeared. But we’ll never know, just as we’ll never know who or what started the fire.

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