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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)
90 Die In School Fire
CHICAGO, Dec 1 - (UPI)- Fire and murderous black smoke mushroomed through an old Roman Catholic parochial school Monday, trapping and killing children at their desks or as they fled through corridors.
Ninety persons, 87 of them children, were killed.
As the night wore on, it was feared the final death toll in the holocaust which swept through the Our Lady of the Angels School might reach 100.
Dr. James Seagraves, staff physician of St. Anne's Hospital where 35 of the 96 injured children were taken, said four to six of the youngsters were not expected to last the night.
Many of the children's bodies had been broken when they jumped from second story windows, he said. The flesh of others had been seared to the bone.
The Cook County Morgue, a scene of tragedy and pandemonium where hysterical parents thronged to seek out their young, said it had received the bodies of three nuns, 53 little girls and 34 boys.
Federal, city and county investigations were ordered into the blaze which caught 1300 of the school's 1700 students in a building with only one fire escape just a half hour before classes would have been dismissed for the day.
Coroner Walter McCarron said a “blue ribbon jury” would be impaneled Tuesday to investigate the causes of one of the worst disasters in Chicago history.
Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn ordered an investigation to determine whether the fire was set by an arsonist. The FBI said in Washington it was working in “close liaison” with the investigation. Meanwhile, a search was ordered for a man reported by a grocery owner to have been loitering about the school.
Police and firemen also investigated reports that a 30-gallon steel drum was found at the base of the stairwell where the fire broke out. Authorities said Monday night they could not confirm the report.
The school building, once used as a church, had portions which were more than 40 years old. Although it had a large English-style basement, it was classed as a 2-story building and fire officials said it lawfully required only the one fire escape. Quinn said the building had been inspected by fire inspectors only a week ago and its fire precautions had been approved.
At the height of the fire, children died at their desks, children jumped screaming from the windows, a nun rolled children down the stairs and a father begged in vain for his little boy to jump into his arms.
In the aftermath, searchlights played across the fire-blackened school. Hysterical parents crowded the street corners, begged doctors in hospital emergency rooms for news of their children, and then went in ashen-faced fear to the morgue basement and to a police station where headquarters were set up for identification of the dead.
Toll Mounts
The death count jumped rapidly. Firemen found 24 children at their desks in one room, their school books open before them. It was presumed that their teacher, knowing escape was impossible through the smoke-filled corridor, had told the children to await rescue.
They obeyed and died, apparently when smoke overcame them or when the fire's heat exhausted the oxygen in the room.
A father, Max Stachura, stood outside the burning building, begging his little boy, Mark, 9, to jump into his arms.
Children were falling all about the father and he caught or stopped the fall of 12 of them. But little Mark was too frightened or he didn't understand his father. Mark didn't jump and he was among the missing and feared dead Monday night.
Another father, Daniel Grimaldi, was luckier, he dashed into the building searching for his children. Students grabbed at his hand and he led them downstairs. Still searching for his children, Grimaldi opened a classroom door, but had to slam it in the face of a blast of furnace-like heat. Later his two youngsters were found safe.
Bundles Checked
For the others, the waiting and the anguish continued into the night.
The basement of the morgue had the atmosphere of delirium as doctors, policemen and attendants shouted to each other. Fathers were brought downstairs in groups of seven to look at the small covered bundles.
One, John Jakowski(sic) Sr., screamed “Oh, my God., my boy, my God, my boy.” He had just lifted a sheet and seen the face of his son, John Jr., 10. The father's legs buckled under and he fell.
Through the basement ran a monotonous chant as attendants lifted the sheets. “This is a boy,” they would say, or “this is a girl.” Catholic priests moved among the bodies giving the last rites of their church.
The first sign of the fire had been black smoke seeping beneath the school doors. Then the ringing of the school's fire alarm and calm orders from the nuns to proceed out of the building in accordance with fire-drill techniques.
But when the school doors opened on the second floor of the building's northeast and southwest corners, black, suffocating smoke rolled in.
Children Jump
The luckier children piled into the corridor helter-skelter. There were screams as youngsters went down in the crush. The bolder children ordered their companions to grab old of each other's skirts. A nun made it by crawling through the smoke with students hanging onto her skirt.
For others, there was no escape.
Scores of more children turned to the windows for salvation.
They stood on the second-floor window sills and one of them, 12-year-old Tommy Raymond, recalled later, “All I could think of was how I would look dead.”
The children began jumping. Neighbors and firemen tried to catch them as they fell, but many lay on the pavement with broken legs. Some of the plummeting children had hair and clothing afire. At least one of those who tried to catch the children, 74-year-old Ed Klock, was a heart patient. He suffered a stoke and was taken to a hospital. Other children, more agile or more lucky, slid down drain pipes or hopped to lower roofs and then to the ground. At the school doors, children poured out-hatless, coatless, panic written on their faces.
Hours after the holocaust, authorities were seeking to determine whether there were adequate precautions at the school. An investigation showed there was only one fire escape - a wrought iron ladder at the rear of the building.
All available fire equipment and medical aid was rushed to the West Side, middle-class area. The fire continued for three hours before it was officially struck.
Floor Blackened
The scene of the disaster was a U-shaped building consisting of wings and additions dating back more than 40 years. Once a church, the building was remodeled into a school when a new church was erected. School authorities said that every summer the school was remodeled and reconditioned. Quinn said the fire broke out in the lower part of the school's rear stairwell in the northwest(sic) corner of the building. The flames and smoke swept up the stairwell and mushroomed out.
At the end, the school's second floor was completely blackened. Except for a wall in the middle, observers could look through it from one end to the others. Ladders straddled the building on three sides and hoses and safety nets littered the ground, along with discarded children's school books and clothing.
The extent of the tragedy was revealed when firemen entered the building and began bringing out the bodies in cloth sacks and blanket-covered stretchers. There were constant calls from shattered upper windows for “more stretchers - more blankets.”
More than 5,000 persons ringed the building so thickly that the steady stream of ambulances had trouble getting through. Many of the watchers were hysterical mothers and fathers. Hardened policemen and ambulance workers wept openly.
Two of the watchers were the new archbishop of Chicago, the Rev. Albert George Meyer, and Mayor Richard J. Daley. The archbishop helped shifts of priests administer extreme unction to the dead. The mayor entered the school while it was still on fire. Then the spiritual and civic leaders of Chicago met and talked together, gray-faced, in the street.
A nun teaching seventh grade, who would not give her name, said smoke forced her back when she tried to lead her children from the room.
“The children began to cry” she said. “I told them to get down on their knees and to crawl through the door one after another. I crawled out first and the first ones held on to my skirt.
“But they were afraid to get down on their knees and to crawl down the stairs. I carried down six and went back for more. A couple wouldn't go down and I rolled them down the stairs. I rolled them down even when they screamed.
“Finally I told all of the children who were left to go back in the room and stand by the window. We closed the door and prayed.”
Another nun said “I could see children standing there and crying and banging on the windows. I couldn't do a thing to help them.” The nun wept. Max Stachura, who lives across an alley from the school, had two children inside. He dashed in and led 12 children to safety. But one of his own children was among the missing.
At the hospitals and morgue, parents fought for news of their children. Case-hardened police wept as they brought in new bodies.
Last Rites
A mother dashed up to United Press International Reporter Pat Craig at St. Anne's Hospital and sobbed, “Tell me this - he's not dead.”
“Who?” Craig asked.
“My little boy,” the mother screamed. Then she grabbed a nurse and repeated the entreaty.
A husband walked out of the Emergency Hospital morgue and his wife screamed and fainted when she saw his face. He had just identified their daughter, 8-year-old Margaret Chambers.
The new archbishop of Chicago, the Rev. Albert G. Meyer, came to the morgue to administer the last rites to the child victims. Chicago's Mayor, Richard J. Daley, entered the school while it was still blazing and remained to stare stony-faced at the scene.
Although the fire was reported out three hours after it began, the parade of dead continued.