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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)
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)
Fire. Thirty-Eight O Eight Iowa...The Alarm Was Desperate, the Tragedy Incredible!
CHICAGO, Dec 15 - (Newsweek)- At 2:40 of a clear and cold afternoon on Chicago's West Side, the janitor of Our Lady of the Angels parochial school - a 50-year-old red-brick building that used to be a church - had just completed a routine check of the school's boiler room on Hamlin Street. The janitor, James Raymond, was walking slowly along the north side of the two-story building when he noticed smoke coming out of a second-floor window. “I ran to the door of the rectory, jerked it open, and yelled to the cook inside: 'Call the Fire Department, quick!'”.
In a second-story, eighth-grade classroom, Sister Mary Davidis was at the blackboard explaining a problem in arithmetic. There were twenty minutes to go before school would be over for the day. “One of the boys in the back row said, very quietly: 'Sister, I smell smoke.' I thought the most important thing was to prevent panic, so I slowly walked to the back door and opened it. Thick smoke started pouring in. I urged the children to be quiet and to move all the chairs away from the windows because I could see that was probably the only way out.”
At 2:42, the speaker box at Engine Co. 85, Eighteenth Battalion, five blocks away, rasped: “Engine 85, Fire. Thirty eight O eight Iowa. Engine 85, Fire. Thirty eight O eight Iowa.” Lt. Stanley Wojnicki picked up his phone and acknowledged the alarm. “Thirty-eight O eight Iowa.” Then he jumped aboard the clanging engine that was already pulling out.
Inside the north wing of the school, flames were shooting up the back stairwell. Where they had started, or how, no one could be sure but apparently the fire had got its impetus from trash at the back stairway's foot. Sister Mary Davidis told her class to shout across the courtyard to the south wing: “The school is on fire, the school is on fire.” Seconds later, the alarms began to ring throughout the building. In the south wing, the children started filing out. In the north wing's ground floor, the four lower grades did the same, excited but orderly. Sister St. Florence, the principal, led her third grade to the street. “Then I went back. I saw that the children from the second floor had stopped half way on the stairs. They were afraid to go farther. 'Come on,' I called, 'it's safe down here. Just hurry up'.” On the second floor, Sister Mary Davidis had been right: The windows were the only way out. One after another, the children climbed out to the ledge, then dropped.
At 2:43 janitor Raymond was running up the front staircase. “The hallway was full of smoke. The dirtiest and thickest smoke I ever saw. Kids were wandering all around coughing and crying. I grabbed a few by their hands and took them to the fire escape. I went back to one of the locker rooms where I heard somebody banging on the door. The door wouldn't open so I busted it. I grabbed a few kids and led them through the smoke to the fire escape. I must have made about five trips like that. Then I passed out.”
On the second floor, Sister Andrienne, tall among her frightened children was trying to get them down the smoke-choked stairs. “I kept telling them: 'Don't be afraid, don't be afraid, just run down the stairs.' But the stairway was beginning to burn now and the children balked at going through. Some of them I had to roll down these stairs. And some I carried. God gave me untold strength.”
At 2:44 Patrolman Matthew Landers, who had heard the alarm in his squad car, skidded up in front of the school. “It was a horrible sight. About twenty kids laying around on the ground, all twisted and some unconscious. I carried three of them to my car and put them on the back seat. Some other fellow got in next to me carrying a girl who was all bleeding. I never found out who he was. We took off for Garfield Park Hospital and I saw the first firemen coming.”
Engine 85 roared up. “It couldn't have taken us more than a minute or two to get there,” said Lieutenant Wojnicki. “When we pulled up, we saw hell.” (Tough, thickset Stanley Wojnicki broke down and wept while talking to Newsweek's reporter two days later..
Like Sister Mary Davidis, 27-year-old Sister Clara Therese - “always cheerful and of beautiful face” - realized that her class could escape only by the windows. She perched herself quietly on the sill and handed the children out to the ledge, encouraged them to drop with words like: “It's not really so far.” (It was actually about 25 feet.) The classroom by then was aflame. It was furnace hot. But the children got out and to the ground. Sister Clara Therese, duty done, fell back into the classroom. And there Sister Therese died.
At 2:45 Hook and Ladder Co. No. 35 got there with five men and Lt. Charles Kamin. “Children were jumping out of the second-floor windows or leaning out yelling for help,” said Kamin. “I ordered one ladder run up, then I ran around the corner and saw more bodies in the court and more kids at the windows. I yelled at my men to bring the other ladders and the life net to that side. I ran up one of the ladders myself. I looked around and the man behind me was being sick at his stomach. The sight was too much.”
The kids in Sister Mary Davidis's room were luckier than others. Broken legs and twisted ankles, but alive. “By the time the firemen ran up the first ladder to our window, most of the children were already on the ground. But the air was so hot I burned my hand just by touching the window sill. After all of the children had left, I got down with a fireman's help). The room was an inferno.” (Sister Mary Davidis was hospitalized with burned hands and blistered face.)
At 2:51 the Fire Department sounded the five-eleven alarm calling all available city equipment to the scene. Capt. Harry Penzin of the Austin Police Station called on his radio for every police wagon and ambulance in Chicago. “I sent my men out to direct the traffic, make sure we didn't have any collisions of rescue equipment. In minutes, we had twenty stretcher cars there.” All the streets around the school were filling up now with heavy equipment and cars. Among the firemen and policemen were inextricably mingled the swelling crowd of frenzied parents.
Thirteen-year-old Joey Urban was pressed into a second-floor window when he saw his mother, Mrs. Lucille Urban, frantically waving to him in the turmoil directly below. “I hollered to my boy to jump, for god's sakes, jump, because I saw there was no time for the firemen to pick him up. Joey yelled something back, and then he came down. I stood there and just tried to catch him. Heavens be blessed, I did. I broke his fall with this here knee” - it was bloody and bruised - “and we both fell on the ground. But I saved my boy.”
At 3 o'clock Lieutenant Kamin had all his ladders working at top speed. “My men were passing the children through the windows.” Then, at the top of his own ladder, “I saw the most terrifying thing in my life. In front of me was a smoke-filled window full of kids laying on top of each other in I don't know how many layers. They must have been screaming but I couldn't hear a thing. All I could think was, get them out, get them out. The ones on top of the pile were pushing so hard against the ladder I had to push them back so I could grab them one at at time by their clothes and pull them out. The heat was terrific. The kids were completely hysterical. I worked like a robot, pushing in, reaching out, dropping them down on the ground. I didn't have time worrying about the ones I dropped. If they were to live I had to get them out. I only hoped they'd fall on other children and it would break their fall. I pulled out eight - seven boys and one girl. When I pulled the eighth kid out, the air ignited and the whole window was suddenly a mass of fire. The boy's clothes caught fire but I pulled him out.
“Then I saw that big pile of kids, as close to me as you are, just turning dead like a burned pile of papers. Poof. And they were dead.”
In a seventh-grade geography class, the sister had evidently seen that escape was shut off and instructed her children to remain seated at their desks until help arrived. But help did not arrive in time. Some of the children died at their desks where obediently they sat. “They all looked so lifelike,” said Dr. M. H. Turek, “so unprepared for anything. They suffocated instantly. They couldn't have suffered much.” But no one would ever know for sure what happened in that room.
At 3:19 a blackened Lieutenant Kamin climbed down the ladder and “started organizing the routine work, breaking the roof to let the gases out and so on. For the kids there was nothing more we could do.” It had all happened in 30 minutes. Now it was all over.