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 the stairway, a pipe chase running from the basement to the attic space above the second floor ceiling.
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.
Finally, firefighters arrived and began rescuing children from the second floor windows, but the hellish conditions in some of the classrooms had become unbearable, and children were stumbling, crawling, clawing and fighting their way to the windows, trying to breathe and escape. Many jumped, fell or were pushed out before firefighters could get to them. Some were killed in the fall, and scores more were injured. Many of the smaller children were trapped behind the frantic crowds at the windows, blocking any chance to escape through a window. Many of the little ones who managed to secure a spot at a window were then unable to climb over the three-foot-high window sills, or were pulled back by others frantically trying to scramble their way out. Helplessly, firefighters watched in horror as classrooms still filled with frightened children exploded in flames, instantly killing those who remained.
The first fire department units had arrived within four minutes of being called, but by then the fire had burned unchecked for as long as 30 minutes and was raging out of control. Also, they were delayed upon arrival because they had been incorrectly directed to the Rectory around the corner, and lost Rows and rows of caskets at a mass funeral held 5 days leter valuable minutes repositioning their trucks and hose lines after realizing the true location of the fire. 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. The gate in the fence was locked — firefighters could not get to the children at the south windows without first breaking through the gate. They spent a valuable minute or two battering the iron gate with sledge hammers and a ladder, before it finally gave way. Between the delayed discovery and reporting of the blaze, the fire-friendly school and the misdirection of the fire units, the firefighters arrived too late. Although they rescued more than 160 children from the burning inferno, many of the children they eventually carried out of the school that day were dead. Some of the bodies were so badly burned that they literally broke into pieces when firemen attempted to pick them up.
Eighty-seven children and three nuns died on December 1, 1958 as a result of the Our Lady of the Angels fire. Three more critically injured children died before Christmas followed by two more in 1959, the last one on August 9. In the end, 92 children and 3 nuns perished, bring the ghastly death toll to a staggering 95.
Our Lady of the Angels school passed a fire department safety inspection only weeks before the fire, because the school did not have to comply with all fire safety guidelines due to a grandfathering clause in the 1949 standards. Existing schools were not required to retrofit the safety devices that were required in all newly constructed schools. In the only positive outcome of the tragedy, sweeping changes in school fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide, no doubt saving countless lives in subsequent years.