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

"Angels Too Soon"
An Emmy award winning original documentary
by WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago, Producer Jay Shefsky

Available on DVD from WTTW TV-11 in Chicago

Or Call: 773-509-1111, ext 6

Air Dates         
When:   Future air dates not announced.
Generally aired each year around December 1.
Click link above to purchase DVD.

Image of the DVD Angels Too Soon by WTTW TV Producer Jay Shefsky

*** NOTICE ***
On December 1, 2003, the 45th anniversary of the OLA fire, the Chicago/Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences held their 45th annual Emmy awards.

“Angels Too Soon” won the Emmy for Documentary of Historical Significance.

Congratulations to WTTW, Jay Shefsky and everyone involved in creating this excellent documentary!

Note: WTTW has now aired "Angels Too Soon" numerous times. As future broadcast dates are announced, they will be posted here.

Webmaster's Review of Angels Too Soon

Jay Shefsky and company at WTTW have put together a compelling and fairly comprehensive documentary in Angels Too Soon. The hour-long program tells the story of Our Lady of the Angels school fire using narration and interviews with survivors, firefighters and authors of the book "To Sleep With The Angels." They did a great job of digging up old film and photos to go along with the narration and interviews.

Using news footage shot the day of the fire, as well as archival footage and family photos from victims and survivors, they manage to tell the story without sensationalism. Through interviews with survivors, now in middle age, we get a glimpse inside the school on December 1, 1958, through the eyes of young children who escaped death by mere seconds. Some were burned and hospitalized for months; others had only minor injuries. All came away with scars on their memories of childhood.

Besides interviews with survivors from five of the six north wing classrooms, they interview firemen, family members, and others. Even fourty four years after the fire, some become choked with emotion talking about it.

The program touches on the major aspects of this story, including the funerals afterward; the Coroner's Inquest; the questioning of the nuns' judgement in asking their students to sit at their desks and pray; the grandfathered fire safety codes that allowed the school to remain unsafe while new schools were required to conform to current fire safety codes; the young student who confessed to setting the fire but later recanted his confession; the lack of animosity toward the Catholic Church afterwards; and the positive after-effects of the fire on school safety nationwide.

This is a story that was largely unknown before the book "To Sleep With The Angels," by David Cowan and John Kuenster, was published, and with this documentary, WTTW has taken a big step toward bringing the story to more people. I very much hope they will make it available to a nation-wide audience.

If you live in the viewing area of WTTW, Chicago's channel 11, be sure to watch this excellent program on February 6, 2003, at 8 pm (CST). It's a story you will not soon forget.

- Webmaster

(The following excerpt is from a story in the Network Chicago magazine citytalk by Denise Kowalski)

Chicago Stories producer Jay Shefsky had wanted to do a documentary about the Our Lady of the Angels school fire for years, but the idea was put on hold as he took on other projects.

Then one night about two years ago, he met a woman at a party who had survived the fire when she was a first-grader. “She spoke about it in such an animated way and said there were other people around who talked about it and had pictures and news clippings,” Shefsky says. “That’s when the project started.”

Because the fire was well documented in photos and film, Shefsky was able to get the visual elements he needed to tell the story. Some of the best footage came from a cameraman who happened to be riding with a fire crew the day of the fire and was among the first on the scene with his 16mm camera. In addition, Shefsky says the book To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire, by Dave Cowan and John Kuenster, was invaluable in leading to contacts and information about the fire.

WTTW11 producer Jay Shefsky met fireman Richard Scheidt and newspaper photographer Steve Lasker. It was Lasker who snapped a photo of Scheidt carrying the body of a boy, John Jajkowski, from the burning school building – an image that came to symbolize a city’s grief.

Shefsky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose credits include producing the Chicago Matters series, is drawn to stories that celebrate courage in the face of adversity. “The thing that drew me to making this film, and the other films that I do, is that I am inspired by regular people struggling against great odds,” he says. “There’s not a happy ending to this, but there are stories of how we as human beings deal with tragedy.”