OLAFire Logo
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)
Disasters - The Chicago School Fire
CHICAGO, Dec 15 - (Time)- In a fifth-grade geography class, ten-year-old John Mele wrote in his book: “Where along the Atlantic Costal Plain can oysters be found?” In a seventh-grade history class, twelve-year-old Andrea Gagliardo was studying “The Missionaries in Florida and Louisiana.” In an eighth-grade classroom, a boy had written in his spelling book: s-k-e-l-e-t-o-n, a-m-b-u-l-a-n-c-e, also “What is the definition of fiery?”.
It was 2:35 p.m., and already, through the high-ceilinged, 48-year-old Our Lady of the Angels grammar school in West Side Chicago, many of the 1,200 youngsters were beginning to turn away from books, fidget in their seats, wonder if the 3 p.m. dismissal bell would ever ring. In fifth-grade geography on the second floor, the teacher thought that the room was getting too warm. Said she: “Why don't some of you boys open the windows?” In fourth-grade arithmetic, a boy blurted: “Sister, I smell smoke.” Smoke began to seep under classroom doors, through open transoms. A fire alarm clanged. The fourth-grade teacher opened the door, found the corridor full of smoke, slammed the door shut. She told the children to go to the windows and pray.
“ I'm Going to Jump!” Driving his Buick south on Avers Avenue, Salesman Elmer Barkhaus, 61, glanced at the school, saw smoke coming out of the back door. Before he could get out of the car, flames were shooting out of the school. At 2:42 he gave the first alarm. At 2:44 the first company of firemen got there, siren screaming. The situation: a flash fire had started in the rear-basement stair well of the school's north wing, had been shut out of the first floor by fire-prevention doors, was now engulfing the second floor - fire doors open - with five classroom, upwards of 200 children.
On the second floor the fire blowtorched down the 35-yd. corridor behind clouds of thick, black smoke, blocked all ways to the only fire escape at the rear. Out of the last of the five classrooms a nun in her 30s crawled with 40 seventh-graders to a front staircase, desperately rolled the children down the stairs to safety before coming down herself. But in the four other classrooms the children were trapped.
They panicked, ran screaming to the windows, fighting, kicking, pummeling. Some jumped 25 ft. down to concrete pavements below, limped or crawled away with twisted limbs. Some hung on, waited for the firemen. Fourth-Grader Ronnie Sarno, 10, fought to a window, called out to his nine-year-old sister Joanne: “I'm going to jump! Do you want to come? As he eased himself over the sill, he heard her scream: “Don't jump, Ron! Don't jump!” And never saw her alive again.
“ Where's the Daughter At?” By 4 o'clock the firemen, with feats of businesslike heroism, got control of the fire, fought on to the smoke-foul second floor, began carrying out bodies. Police lines held back parents and relatives, some standing frozen and numb, some crying hysterically. As dark fell, the watchers moved on to St. Anne's Hospital 16 blocks from the school, waited for word of dead and injured. Doctors rushed children into surgery. Nurses parted crowds to wheel beds carrying children and plasma poles. Priests moved slowly from group to group, lips moving. One man in the crowd, a truck driver, said: “I heard it on the radio. I come straight home. I told my wife, “Where's the daughter at?” I looked here. She got a little burned on the side.” Another screamed at his wife: “Why didn't you keep her home today?” A nurse came out of a ward packed with children with burns, broken limbs, asked gently: “Is anybody looking for a little boy wearing a boy Scout ring?”.
From St. Anne's scores of parents went on to the county morgue, a dark building surrounded by police ambulances with red lights flashing. There bodies were sectioned off beneath white sheets by approximate age and sex. “Maffiola?” a white-coated attendant called out. “The Maffiola family?” Another attendant called: “Sarno? Anyone here for Sarno?” A deputy coroner told a registrar: “Better leave room for 100 names.” The names: Michele Altobell Karen Baroni David Biscan Philip Tampone Christine Vitacco Wayne Wisz. The toll: 91 dead - 53 girls, 35 boys, three nuns - and more than 100 injured.
“ Come On Out, Son.” Next day Chicago dazedly, sadly, tried to find out what had gone wrong. Known point was that the second-floor fire doors had been left open, making a flue for the flames. Not known was how the fire had started at the foot of the stair well itself. A cigarette tossed into wastepaper in the basement? Spontaneous combustion.
And dazedly the neighborhood was left to fathom the unfathomable. Dead was Joseph Modica, 9, who was almost through making a Christmas present for his family out of letters cut from a cereal box and glued onto a backing. It read: I, Joseph, promise to do my best do do my duty to God and my country, to be square and to Alive was Kenny Travers, 7, whose mother told a reporter. “I hugged him and hugged him” - whereupon Kenny interrupted, “And you said I can get candy whenever I want it.” Two days later police watched understandingly as a man beat his hands against the door of Our Lady of the Angels, crying: “Come on out now, son. I'm out here waiting for you.”
Behind that door, black laths hung down like macabre pennants. Jagged bits of glass were yellowed by the heat. Desks were overturned, heaped with rubble. A ballpoint pen lay here, a plastic billfold embossed Ponytail there. Charred coats still hung on hooks. A couple of odd shoes, one a loafer, one red-strapped, lay together filled with ice from fire hoses' water. On top of one blackboard, black letters still read: Come, Little Lord, here is Thy bed.