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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958

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From International Fire Fighter Magazine, January 1959

Chicago Fire Arouses Nation!

By “International Fire Fighter” Staff Reporter

At about 2:35 p.m. on December 1, Elmer Barkhaus, a Chicago salesman, was driving his car past Our Lady of Angels School at 3808 W. Iowa Street when he saw smoke curling out of a rear window. Braking his car to a sliding stop, he raced into a little grocery store and blurted: “Do you have a 'phone?” “No,” replied the woman who ran the store. Barkhaus ran from the store, yelling:

“Do you have a 'phone?”

“No,” replied the woman who ran the store. Barkhaus ran from the store, yelling:

“Got to find a 'phone . . . the school's on fire!”

The woman ran out behind him to see black smoke pouring out of the school and screaming children jammed into the windows.”

Barkhaus ran to a second and a third house before he found a 'phone and a telephone call went in to Engine Company 35. At the inquest later, Barkhaus told this correspondent it was “maybe three or minutes” from the time he saw the smoke until the first piece of equipment arrived on the scene from the station located two blocks away.

There were about 1,300 children in the 40-year-old school that day. In the next few minutes, 87 were to be killed outright, three fatally injured, and three nun teachers were to be killed. The dead children were 53 girls and 34 boys; all from 8 to 15 years of age. About 100 more were injured in greater or lesser degree by burns and in leaps from the second floor of the school. Testimony at the inquest declared that, without the almost super-human efforts of the fire fighters and the civilians who raced to the scene, the death toll could have been even greater. Damage was estimated at about $50,000. At the station house of Engine Co. 85, the still alarm was logged in at 2:42. The officer in charge of the first apparatus to arrive was Lieutenant Stanley Wojnicki. He was one of the first to testify at the inquest and his testimony was as follows:

“On December 1, 1958, at approximately 2:42 p. m., we were given an alarm at Office No. 2, for 3808 W. Iowa.

“On arrival, we hooked up our hoses and immediately called for another alarm by radio. There was a huge crowd, and mothers, nuns and civilians were hollering for them to jump from windows. We were encouraging them to hold on because more help was on the way. It was a scene one will not forget in a lifetime.

“Children were throwing books from the windows and getting ready to jump. Parents and nuns were screaming at them. This was on the north end of the building and smoke was coming out at that time.

“A stranger came up to me and started shouting that fire was at the other end of the building. I ran around and saw more smoke coming out. I assured him that more help was on the way.

“I saw strings of children lying on the lot. Some were hanging from the windows by their hands and mothers and nuns were screaming at them. I ran back and saw ladders taking some of them off the building. There was much shouting and screaming for them to jump. I shouted that the ladder should be at the north end, helping those who were unable to jump.”

At this point Lieutenant Wojnicki was choked up by emotion and was unable to continue reading from his report. After a brief pause, he was able to continue:

“Many civilians were helping on the ladders and carrying the wounded on stretchers to the ambulances. Meanwhile, we worked our lines through windows and down the stairs to the basement. While working our lines my engineer called for the 2-11 alarm. The entire company was ordered under my direction and went through the building for overall purposes. At approximately 10 p. m. we were ordered to pick up the hoses.”

Lieut. Wojnicki, laying down his prepared statement, said additionally to the blue-ribbon coroner's jury of 16 specialists in construction and architectural professions:

“I want to say this: there would have been a lot more dead if we didn't act fast and with the help of civilians and nuns and the parents. People don't realize the amount of work the fire department has. Civilians were working on the ladders and in many ways they did a splended job.”

Lieut. Wojnicki has been mentioned as a possible recipient of a special commendation for his presence of mind in ordering the second alarm immediately rather than awaiting the arrival of the district chief.

Mrs. Barbara Glowacki, who ran the grocery store on Avers Avenue, told the inquest that she ran to the school and tried to help the children who had jumped.

“I remembered that you're not supposed to move injured people but I had to get them out of the way of the others who were jumping down on them. Some of them had their clothes and hair on fire and I poured water on them.”

Terrified and hysterical parents had to stand helplessly outside. Inside there was a mixture of heroism and panic. Some children were led safely outside by their teachers. One nun told of “rolling them down the stairs” when the terrified children balked.

The fire started somewhere at the bottom of an open staircase on the northeast corner of the building. It was a wooden staircase, the steps covered with asphalt tile. It roared up the staircase and flashed unimpeded down the 107-foot transverse hall of the north wing of the building (see diagram.) The walls of the hall were plaster on wood lath. The ceiling of the hall and the classrooms was of fibreboard acoustical tile.

There were no deaths or serious injuries anywhere except on the second floor of the north wing of the school. The fire did not enter the first floor. The basement is the “English type” about half out of the ground level. No fire entered here either. Because of the elevation of this basement, the children had about a 25-foot drop to the schoolyard.

Few children died after the first apparatus arrived on the scene. The suddenness and severity of the fire, coupled with a delay in putting in the first alarm (a finding of the coroner's jury) caused the fire to do its deadly work before the fire fighters could become completely effective in rescue work.

The nearest alarm box is two blocks from the school. Most schools in Chicago have boxes adjacent and all begin with the numbers “25” for easy recognition. Equipment response is arranged appropriately for a school fire. The box two blocks away, No. 5182, was never pulled; it was tripped from fire alarm headquarters.

Monsignor William J. Gorman, chaplain of the Chicago Fire Department, was on the scene and said “I am proud of my men. They did everything humanly possible to save the kids.” The Monsignor, aided by about 14 priests, administered the last rites of the Church to the little victims as they were brought out by the fire fighters.

There are many, many children alive today because fire fighters and civilians worked like maniacs to save them. They plucked them, frozen with fear, from windowsills with the flames licking at their backs. They beat out flames from their clothes with their bare hands. They handed them . . . half-tossed them . . . down ladders. Men stood below and tried to break their falls with their own bodies until battered almost insensible; some were sent to the hospitals. Some made the leap for life and were only shaken up. Some died from broken backs and fractured skulls. Some made the jump as they were already virtually dead; their clothes and hair streaming smoke and flames behind them. Some lay screaming in pain and calling for their mothers.

The fire out, fire fighters moved among the blackened ruins searching for victims.

Captain Anthony Pilas of the Fire Prevention Bureau answered the second alarm. By this time the flames were already consuming the seventh grade classroom where his 11-year-old daughter, Nancy, had been reciting only a few minutes earlier. His fellow fire fighters had to hold him back. Nancy was among the dead.

Robert Porn, Robert James, Charles Kamin and John White were four fire fighters seriously injured fighting the blaze. Several policemen and civilians were also hurt.

At the inquest, Police Sergeant Drew Brown declared:

“The fire department did a sensational job.” He said that, without their efforts, the death Vlist would have been much longer. Sergeant Brown, assigned to the Arson Squad, said, “The weight of evidence seems to lean that the fire was not arson.” Extensive interviews with the children were undertaken to learn all that could be learned concerning the minutes just before and just after the fire was discovered.

To this day no one knows just where the first spark came from. In all probability, no one will ever know. In this interviewing, two boys reported that an older boy known to them only as “Robert” had been known to “sneak a cigaret” in the general area where the fire started. A name check revealed that there were five possible “Roberts.” Three of the five died in the blaze.

As the coroner's jury completed its deliberations, it declared that, in all possibility, the fire was an inadvertant one, begun by student smoking. The jury said it had been established that “there had been smoking in the stairwell.” It also declared that it had been established that there was inflammable material stored at the bottom of the stairwell and that “discrepancies in accounts confirm that there was a delay in turning in the alarm.”

Speaking from the witness stand at the inquest, Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn declared emphatically that “there are millions of people who simply do not know how to call their police and fire departments.”

At the height of the fire, 51 pieces of equipment responded. Four other pieces responded in answer to a special alarm. Eight fire ambulances answered tbs call, aided by police squadrols and private ambulances. At one time, according to one of the men on duty, “ambulances were being called up out of line like taxis” to load up with the injured, the dead and the dying.”

Lieut. Roger Hester and Fire Fighters Richard Duchene, George Harper, Dan Bodner and Robert Thorpe of Ladder Co. 26 were among those members of the Department who were interviewed by Chicago newspaper reporters. They were among the first to arrive on the scene and Duchene recalled:

“Civilians went up the ladders to do what they could. Firemen were too busy trying to catch or break the falls of children leaping from the building. The children were screaming and jumping faster than we could catch them. It was the worst thing I ever saw . . . children on the ground everywhere.”

Duchene was among those assigned to the task of removing bodies.

“The bodies seemed to be coming out by the truckloads. I don't know which was worse; putting kids into ambulances knowing they would be dead before they went a block, or seeing the little forms trapped at the rear of the building.”

At Cook County Morgue, as attendants continued to bring in the sheeted forms, one waiting mother slashed the mute silence with a shrill scream and collapsed, sobbing:

“My God, my God . . . won't they ever stop coming?”

Blood was one of the great early needs after the fire. I. A. F. F. Local No. 2, the Chicago Fire Fighters Association, in a special executive board session, approved the release of 70 per cent of all the blood held in its blood bank. Firemen flocked to the hospitals to offer blood for direct transfusions.

In addition to the blood, Local No. 2 donated $1,000 to the Our Lady of the Angels Fund which was established to help the families of the victims with their financial problems occasioned by the fire.

Unions gave more than $50,-000 to the emergency fund. Union barbers in Chicago usually close on Wednesdays but, staying open, all tips and receipts going to the fund, they raised $5,000 in one day. Several international unions contributed and Chicago locals, in addition to Local 2, which contributed included the musicians, building service employes, technical engineers, teamsters, ladies garment workers, plumbers and pipe fitters, post office clerks, electrical workers, machinists, meat cutters and the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Building Trades Council.

It doubtless will be of interest to fire fighters to read excerpts from a preliminary statement made by engineers of the National Fire Protection Association after they had studied the remains of the building.

Telling that the fire spread up the stairwell and mushroomed at the second floor ceiling, the report said:

“In the absence of any stairway enclosure at the second floor, the fire then extended throughout the length of the 107-foot corridor. The corridor ceiling was lined with combustible acoustical tile and children's clothing was hung on corridor wall hooks, all of which added fuel to the fire.

“It was evident that the fire in the basement was not detected promptly and it is reliably reported that notification to the fire department was delayed. The Chicago Fire Department did an admirable job of rescue work considering the handicaps under which they were forced to operate.

“A chapel and a boiler room at the basement level were untouched because wood doors to each were shut. Likewise, the fire was prevented from entering the first floor level by a closed fire door off the stairway. Unfortunately, there was no similar protection at the second floor level and it was this simple fact that was to a major degree responsible for the loss of life.

“There were neither sprinklers to extinguish the basement fire nor automatic detection equipment to give warning, and while the manual fire alarm was reportedly sounded, it was too late.

“It is obvious there are no new lessons to be learned from this fire, just old lessons tragically re-emphasized. The 1957 NFPA Occupancy Fire Record on Schools (FR-57-1) testifies that open stairways, combustile interior finish, delayed discovery, delayed alarm, lack of automatic protection, and poor housekeeping practices are all long-standing causes of needless fire deaths. The Building Exits Code (NFPA No. 101) covers all these and other essential features of life safety from fire. How different the story might have been if the venerable structure had been sprinklered!”

Story © 1959 International Association of Fire Fighters