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

A number of people have asked why I created this website and what my connection is with the fire at Our Lady of the Angels on December 1, 1958.

I did not live in Chicago in 1958. In fact, I lived 1,000 miles away in Colorado. On December 1, 1958, I attended a public elementary school that was strikingly similar to OLA in several important ways: it had high, 12-foot ceilings, and thus a fearsome drop from the upper floor windows; all the interior stairways were made entirely of wood; there wasn't a single fire-safe door in the entire school - the stairs were wide open, top to bottom; there were no external fire escapes; the fire bell rang only in the school and was not connected to the fire department - and could only be activated from the principal's office; and there were no fire sprinklers. Worst of all, the lunchroom where we ate lunch everyday was located on the third floor - a good 45-feet from window to ground. I remember my parents saying that the school was a firetrap, and that if a fire broke out, especially at lunchtime, we'd be in real trouble. As a kid, I didn't give it much thought - schools never catch on fire!

But then Our Lady of the Angels did.

When I heard about the fire in a school that killed a lot of kids, I started to worry about fire. I remember looking out the windows, and wondering what it would be like to have to jump. Although my fourth-grade classroom was on the first floor, it was still about 15 feet up - not that bad. But that lunchroom was really up there!

When I entered the fifth grade the next fall, I returned to a school that had suddenly "grown" external steel fire escapes from every classroom, including the 3rd floor lunchroom. Although I didn't know it at the time, this was a direct result of the OLA fire. But my new classroom was now on the second floor and, even with the external fire escapes, I began to worry again. What if the fire was on the same side of the room as the fire escape? And the lunchroom fire escape was at one end of a long and narrow room. If fire came up the inside stairway, children in half the room would be trapped. Still, I was glad we had the fire escapes.

Then in October, during fire prevention month, I saw a fire prevention poster in a storefront window that changed my life.

The poster featured a large photo of a fireman carrying a boy from a school that had caught fire. I stood and stared at that poster for hours. The boy was about my age - and he was dead. He died because his school caught fire. If MY school were to catch fire, that could be ME. I began to worry more about fire - both at school and at home. I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and search through the house, just to make sure there wasn't a fire. I thought about the poster constantly, and would go back and look at it every chance I could. Eventually the poster was taken down and I never saw it again - except in my memory, where it never left. The picture was, of course, the widely seen photo of Chicago fireman Richard Scheidt carrying 10-year-old John Jajkowski out of Our Lady of the Angels on December 1, 1958.

That picture was always in the back of my mind as the years passed. At first I had identified with the boy, and wondered if I might someday be carried from my fire-ravaged school. But as I grew older I began to identify with the fireman. I would imagine rushing into my burning school to rescue my friends, and of course, I always got them out in time. During high school and college, I spent several years as a volunteer fireman.

By then, the thoughts I had about rescuing my friends had became a more general desire to protect kids, and help those who were hurting. While in college, I met and befriended a youngster whose parents had just undergone a nasty divorce and whose dad had left. Over time, I became something of a surrogate dad to the boy. A few years later, I married his older sister! (Today he is my 40-something brother in law.) I've always felt that had it not been for the poster that haunted me for so many years, I'd never have met my wife, and my four wonderful children would not be here today!

But I really knew nothing more about the picture than that it happened at a Catholic School somewhere. For years, I wished I could know more about what happened at that school. Then I found the superb book "To Sleep With The Angels," and was able to learn about the event that had indirectly had such an impact on my life. Later, I searched the Internet for more. While there were a few sites that summarized the fire, or mentioned some specific aspect of it, I found no sites with comprehensive coverage of the tragedy. That very much bothered me - I thought there should be a site devoted exclusively to this event and it's victims, living and dead.

So, I decided to build this site.

-Eric Morgan, webmaster