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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958
OLA Fire Period News Articles
(These stories have been reproduced as accurately as possible from the original news reports, including original errors)
90 Die In School Fire (12/1/58)
74 Hurt, Blast Traps Scores (12/1/58)
Tough Chicago Police Weep At The Tragic, Tiny Bundles (12/1/58)
Tom Feared Sight Of Death's Mask (12/1/58)
Margaret Was a Little Girl Who Didn't Like to Be Sick (12/1/58)
Joe Wasn't Hurt, He Saw Only Horror (12/1/58)
Sobbing Nun Tells of Horror In School Fire (12/1/58)
Parish Families Seek Children (12/1/58)
Man, 74, Stricken Helping Children (12/1/58)
90 PERISH IN CHICAGO SCHOOL FIRE; 3 NUNS ARE VICTIMS; SCORES HURT; PUPILS LEAP OUT WINDOWS IN PANIC (12/1/58)
F.B.I. Ready to Assist Chicago Fire Inquire (12/1/58)
Panic Grips Classrooms; Confusion Increases Toll (12/1/58)
Everybody was Jumping (12/1/58)
List of Identified Dead In Chicago School Fire (12/1/58)
Fire Gong Tolled A Deadly Message (12/1/58)
Frantic Dad Tells Fire Rescue Role (12/1/58)
85 Youngsters Still Hospitalized; Blaze 3rd Worst In 100 Years (12/2/58)
Smoldering School Ruins Like A Cavern Of Death (12/2/58)
87 Children, 3 Nuns Die in School Fire (12/2/58)
Probers of Fire Ask: Why? (12/2/58)
Schoolboy Smoking Cigaret Might Have Touched Off Fire (12/2/58)
One Family's Story (12/2/58)
Throng Just Waits, Looks (12/2/58)
The Morgue (12/2/58)
School Fire Chicago's Worst in 55 Years (12/2/58)
“I'll Remember It to My Dying Day,” Says Fireman (12/2/58)
Chronology Shows Speed of Disaster (12/2/58)
Girl Recalls Burning Backs Of Classmates (12/2/58)
Chicago Presses Search for Clues to Fire At School (12/2/58)
'I Won't Give Up Hope,' Says Father (12/2/58)
Boy Who Jumped Tells of Tragedy (12/2/58)
Pope John Wires Condolences to Bereaved Kin (12/2/58)
Arson Squad to Probe Fire in School Last Year (12/2/58)
“It's Just Too Much,” Laments Archbishop (12/2/58)
Hospitals Work Around Clock to Relieve Injured (12/2/58)
Other School Tragedies (12/2/58)
Moscow Says School Fire No Accident (12/2/58)
Memories of Horror Rack School Janitor (12/2/58)
How Fireman Feels Carrying Out Victims (12/3/58)
Third Worst In Nation (12/3/58)
Priests Try Vainly To Comfort Bereaved Relatives And Parents (12/3/58)
Struggle to Save Fire Survivors Continues (12/3/58)
Gigantic IFs Jolt Probers Digging Into Fire Mystery (12/3/58)
Fire Leads to School Checkups (12/3/58)
Rites Held for Nuns Killed in School Fire (12/4/58)
10,000 Mourners at Funeral Of Three Nuns Killed in Fire (12/4/58)
Mass Offered for 28 Small Victims of Fire (12/5/58)
Fire Victim's Souls Commended to God (12/5/58)
91st Chicago Victim Of School Fire Dies (12/6/58)
500 Children Face Questioning In School Fire (12/6/58)
Bereaved Families Mourn in Chicago (12/7/58)
9-Year-Old Boy Dies, Raises Chicago School Fire Toll to 92 (12/8/58)
Boy Becomes 92d Victim of Chicago Fire (12/8/58)
School Fire Horror Probed (12/11/58)
Chicago School Afire Long Before 1st Alarm (12/11/58)
Terror, Torment Related by School Fire Victims (12/13/58)
Girl Fire Victim, 9, Wonders Why Cards Have Stopped Coming (12/14/58)
Fire. Thirty-Eight O Eight Iowa...The Alarm Was Desperate, the Tragedy Incredible! (12/15/58)
Nightmare in the News (12/15/58)
Disasters - The Chicago School Fire (12/15/58)
How Safe Are The Schools (12/15/58)
Fire Hazards Found At 2 City Schools
Two Schools To Be Closed As Fire Risks
Texas School Tragedy Of 294 Dead Recalled
$50,000? So What?
Erect Fireproof School Building (11/30/59)
City Cleared As Defendant In School Fire (7/19/60)
New School Open (9/60)
Considered prime suspect in Chicago blaze (1/16/1962)
Boy Admits Fire Fatal To 95 (1/16/62)
Judge Rips Lie Tester On Boy's Story Of Fire (1/16/1966)
Cicero Won't Let Police Talk to Youth (1/16/1962)
Lad Cleared in School Fire (3/13/62)
Memories stay forever - Our Lady of Angels fire survivor (11/83)
'Born fireman' wanted to be part of the action (6/1/2003)
The Morgue
Dad Bends Down to Look - Then He Screams
By Peter Reic.
CHICAGO - Dec. 2, 1958 - On hastily erected wooden planking in the basement of the County Morgue they were laid out. The bodies of the children - 4th and 5th graders from Our Lady of the Angels grammar school.
A young father, ashen-faced, expressionless, walked as in a trance between a nurse and a deputy coroner. The group paused. The deputy gently lifted a white cotton sheet mercifully covering the first of the seemingly endless row of small, still forms.
A shock of blond hair, a bobby pin still holding a curl, was exposed to the cold white light of the morgue's bare light bulb.
The father bent forward hesitantly. His lips quivered. The deputy lifted the sheet a little more.
The young father shook his head. “No,” he whispered hoarsely. It wasn't his daughter.
The three figures moved silently to the next covered form.
Again the deputy lifted the sheet. Again the father forced himself to bend forward for a closer look.
Then it came. A scream. A deep-throated, anguished man's cry that strangled a second after it began - strangled because the father was screaming so hard he no longer could make a sound.
Great, overwhelming sobs wrenched his body. He twisted from the nurse's restraining grip, flung himself on the dead form and lovingly cradled the lifeless head in his arms.
He looked up then, his face hideously ravaged with grief, and nodding piteously, indicated he found what he had prayed so hard he wouldn't find.
The strong arms of a policeman lifted him to his feet and supported him as he collapsed.
It had begin hours earlier
At 5:15 p.m., there were 42 fire victims bodies in the morgue. Police, coroner's deputies, doctors from adjacent County Hospital, and morgue personnel clustered in a lobby and a hallway.
Just arriving were a number of priests - summoned to give comfort to bereaved families expected momentarily. Some priests came so hurriedly they hadn't even had time to don clerical garb.
In Polk street, just south of the yellow brick building housing the County Morgue, ambulances were lined up nearly a block - red mars lights blinking eerily in the dusk of evening.
A growing knot of silent spectators watched as the procession of ambulances delivered bodies to the morgue's east entrance.
A woman said:
“My God, won't they ever stop coming?”.
At 5:34 p.m., body-laden stretchers were blocking the morgue's basement corridor the dead were arriving faster than an emergency team of attendance could place them in the viewing room.
At 5:41 p.m., the count had grown to 58. the line of waiting ambulances had grown, too.
Coroner McCarron directed deputies to show all arriving kin into the morgue's various inquest rooms, so grief-stricken parents and relatives could at least be seated while waiting to identify the bodies.
The coroner also directed a team of County Hospital nurses to prepare smelling salts and strong coffee for the distraught kin. Nurses were instructed further to take names and descriptions of all missing youngsters being sought.
The coroner added.
“Don't let anyone into the viewing room until I talk to them. We don't want to add more deaths from heart attacks to this ghastly tragedy.”
To a reporter, he said:
“Have you seen them yet - the little ones, all burned up? My God, I don't know how I'll be able to take it. I've got five of my own, you know.”
The coroner, frequently exposed to death and tragedy though he is, was very shaken.
And still the bodies continued to arrive.
A few minutes later, the count had reached 65.
In the basement viewing room, the lifeless forms were gently placed on wooden planking, then covered with sheets.
A small hand and arm showed from one. A child's wristwatch was strapped to it. The hands of the watch had stopped a little after 3 p.m.
Morgue attendants and physicians now began the grim task of sorting bodies male and female larger and smaller. Item of identification, such as rings, or lockets, shoes or recognizable bits of clothing, were duly noted on charts. A doctor explained.
“The clothing isn't much help. Most of the kids wore uniforms, apparently.
“But personal items might help identify a youngster, and the sex and size classification will at least spare a parent the necessity of viewing all the bodies. A parent looking for a small daughter, for instance, will have to view only bodies in that category.”
The doctor paused to pick up a slip of paper that had dropped on the floor, apparently from a pocket of one of the victims.
It was a card with a child's prayer on it.
Shortly before 6, the first parents arrived.
A slim, young mother with dark hair and a husky man in a wind jacket are brought in by a man who identifies himself as Jay Staggs of 3027 Milwaukee av. He says.
“I'm a Chicago Civil Defense volunteer. I've driven these people to four different hospitals looking for their youngster. This is a last resort.
Neither mother nor father betray emotion. The woman waits silently as the father asks, and receives, permission to view the bodies downstairs.
As the father starts to inspect the ghastly array, a deputy calls him back. The deputy tells him.
“It's still too early, sir. There are 10 more bodies at St. Anne's Hospital, and Lord knows how many more elsewhere. It's no use putting you through this ordeal more than once. Please wait till we have all the kids here.
The father agrees. He and his wife leave quietl.
It is 6:15 p.m. The basement room is filled to capacity with small bodies row on row. A second third, even a fourth room are pressed into emergency service.
A deputy announces the total number of bodies thus far received: 68.
Now a steady stream of parents and relatives enters the morgue, all seeking a youngster who did not return from school.
In the shuffling, dread-filled crowd that fills the lobby, snatches and fits of conversation are heard.
A young mother.
“I wanted to ask his teacher if she saw what happened to Johnny, but she's dead.”
A nun.
“I was about to release the patrol boys. It was shortly before 3 o'clock when I first smelled the smoke.
A young man in the white gown of an intern.
“I can't take this. I've got to get some fresh air before I go downstairs again. These poor little kids.”
A father tells a policeman.
“My little girl was wearing a little gold ring with a purple stone. Will that help?”.
A priest to a woman near collapse.
“There still are a lot of children unaccounted for. Perhaps your youngster is not even here. You must not despair.
An elderly couple to a policeman.
“We're looking for Joanne Sciolino. She's 11. We're her aunt and uncle. Can we see if she's downstairs?”.
At 7 p.m., the count had risen to 78. A few minutes later, to 83.
A deputy coroner tells a morgue attendant numbering a registration sheet.
“You'd better leave room for a hundred names.”
Another familiar face in the crowd, Ald. Patrick Petrone, in whose ward the fire occurred, helps several bereaved families coordinate search efforts by telephoning hospitals and friends.
Downstairs, another flurry of activity as nurses rush to the aid of a mother who has lost consciousness on seeing the array of bodies.
Thirty feet away, a father clutches his face with both hands as he acknowledges identity of a youngster as his.
Except for the intermittent cries of anguish that mark identification of another youngster's body, the morgue is quiet.
Even at this stage, hours after the tragedy, the impact is too great: the horror to overwhelming.
Most simply are too stunned to react.
A father near exhaustion, after viewing numerous bodies in a vain quest for his son, aged 10, he tells an attendant.
“I want to see the other bodies, too. I must find my son.”
Later, the attendant tells a reporter.
“The bodies we didn't let him see wouldn't have done him any good to see. They're too charred to be recognizable.
Another father, his eyes blank from horror and shock, staggers by. In his hand he clutches the contents of one victim's pockets - a nickel, a piece of string, a toy propeller, and a key. Those items tell him all he needs to know.
By 8:06 p.m., the body count has risen to 87, with a scant dozen identified. The crowds at the morgue continue to grow.
An hour later, 90 bodies are counted.
The grim task of trying to identify them continues.
The hollow-eyed men and woman aimlessly wandering corridors of the morgue, waiting their turn to view the remains, know in their hearts they'll find the worst.
But some - just a fortunate few - are wrong.
Like Joseph Dembinski, for instance.
He is about to resign all hope when a deputy tells him.
“I have good news, sir. Linda Zeogone, the niece you are seeking, isn't here. We have found out she is safe at one of the hospitals.”
But Joseph Dembinski is the exception.
For the vast majority of other people at the morgue, there is not awakening from the nightmare.