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

Personal Experiences with Our Lady of the Angels School Fire

If you have a personal experience, recollection or opinion about the December 1, 1958 Our Lady of the Angels school fire, whether you were present at the fire or not, you can relate it here. Any story or information is welcome as long as it relates to Our Lady of the Angels school fire.
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Posted by: Mike Hartnett On: 7/25/2018 ID: 675
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Chicago
I am a retired journalist, and the son of the late Jan Hartnett, a reporter for the Associated Press in Chicago.

On a cold December day in 1958, I was in the seventh grade, living on the south side of Chicago, when a west-side grammar school, Our Lady of Angels, caught fire. My dad was sent to cover the fire.

He arrived in time to see little kids hanging by their fingertips on the window sills, and then finally giving way, and falling to the ground.

By the time the fire was extinguished, 92 children, most 9 or 10 years old, and three nuns were dead.

Dad came home and, without speaking, went straight to the liquor cabinet and got drunk.

That was very unlike him. He would often have a drink or two before dinner or after but was always telling stories about the news of the day Chicago politics, sports, or whatever. Not this time, though.

Two or three days later, he covered the mass funeral of 20-30 children. Again, he came home without a word, and got drunk.

It wasn't until decades later that I read To Sleep with the Angels, the story of the fire, that I began to understand the horror my dad had seen. He died about 30 years later; I'm sure those memories never left him.

Months later we moved to the neighborhood immediately west of the area served by Our Lady of Angels. I was the new kid in the school, in eighth grade a very awkward time for me.

Not just for me. Our Lady of Angels was destroyed, so the survivors were sent to other nearby schools, including mine, Our Lady Help of Christians. In my class was an "Angel," Joann McDonald, who had finally jumped from her classroom and broke her leg. She was a big, gawky girl, by eighth-grade standards, but a real nice kid, and going through the same "new kid in school" trauma that I was going through.

(God bless women's athletics; today a big gawky girl might have an outlet basketball or volleyball. But there was nothing like that for Joann.)

She wouldn't have made any team, regardless, because she had a number of operations during the year, returning to class each time with a heavy plaster cast on her leg.

In Joann's own words: "Everybody was screaming. Two men brought ladders from the garage and put them up to the second floor. One girl hung from the ledge and got her feet on the ladder, but it was too far away for the rest of us. Then the men put the ladders together and one girl started to climb down, but the ladder fell apart and she dropped.

"The fire started coming through the walls and everybody was screaming because the fire was hurting them. I jumped out the window and landed on the roof of a shed in the alley. I must have bounced because then I landed on the ground. I felt the pain right away and couldn't move my leg, so I knew it was broken."

(To read more interviews with the survivors, visit www.olafire.com/survivors.asp#208.)

We graduated and went to different high schools, me to an all-boys school, Joann probably to an all-girls school. That's the way it was in those days.

I don't know what ever happened to Joann. I haven't googled her because her name is so common, I assume I'd find eight gazillion entries. But I've never forgotten her.

God bless Joann. God bless Dad.

Posted by: Sharon Ellis On: 3/10/2018 ID: 674
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Chicago
I was 10 years old and living in Chicago (in the Old Town area) at the time of the fire. Our Girl Scout troop "adopted" Luella Marie Hartman. My strongest memory of that time was our Girl Scout troop going to her house (or apartment) and visiting her and buying some little crafts that she had made. I believe I still have a pink case (kind of like a compact) that I bought that day.

Sharon Ellis

Posted by: robert leigh leikovich On: 1/22/2018 ID: 673
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before north lawndale
I attended our lady of Angeles from 1948 to 1955, graduated in 1955 I was
age 15 years. When I was 8 years old I attended third grade a basement class room, my teacher was sister Mary Jean Cecile. She was a very pleasant Nun. I remember the room was a basement with white glossy white
tiles on the wall I would say a safe room. When I went into fourth grade it was upstairs I believe was room 104 in the north building. I noticed
very old dark woodwork, dark wood floors and entry doors, I didn't feel
it was safe. Cold in the winter months and hot in the warmer months But I was a ten year old boy what would I know.
By the time I entered fifth grade I went upstairs to room 205, near the
steps. It was another dark room I felt unsafe I had sister Mary Faustina
a very nice nun. A year later I passed to the sixth grade in room 209
on the north side of the old building also next to a set of stairs. I had
sister Mary Albia. Not a very nice person she was strict and physical. I receive plenty slaps. Even tore up my books very angry one day and many more after. Also the room was very dark and old, not safe.
My parents went to the school principal reported her to be physical to
our son always in a angry state. And suggested the school pay for new books for me. Apparently sister Mary Albia had a talking to by the principal and she had to purchase me new books. The rest of the year
she was very nice to me. In seventh grade I had room 210 another unsafe
room I can see why all those children died in these rooms in 1958.
By the time I passed to the eighth grade I was in the new building and
upstairs in 208. I graduated in 1955 safely.
My sister Linda attended the school and graduated in 1958 in the summer prior to the fire. I had several cousins that attended Our Lady Angeles
during the fire but because they were younger and was in the new building they were dismissed early before the fire started.
I and my family were not harmed. My grandson is doing a report of the Our Lady Angeles in his high school class and I'm helping and
giving him information regarding this tragedy.
Hard to believe it has been sixty years since the tragedy.
Since the fire I have prayed every day that my children and grandchildren will always be safe from danger.
Sincerely Robert Leigh

Posted by: kar On: 12/2/2017 ID: 672
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before in indiana about 40 m. away
with tears in my eyes I just want to say the victims and survivors are not forgotten. God bless the survivors and friends and relatives of the victims.

Posted by: Mary Beth LaBanca On: 12/1/2017 ID: 671
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No After n/a
My thoughts and prayers are with all who lost their lives this day all those years ago. I think of them often and still can't believe such a terrible thing could happen. Also, to all the survivors and all who were affected by this tragedy, I send love and healing prayers to all of you. I'm so sorry you have had to carry this pain. Only God knows why, I sure don't understand it. I guess it will all make sense when we get up to Heaven. Love to all on this sad remembrance day. Sure wish we could go back in time and change things. xoxo

Posted by: Lauren (Herlihy) Ford On: 12/1/2017 ID: 670
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No After n/a
My aunt, Mary Herlihy was a second grade teacher. She has been passed away for some time now, but I was wondering if anyone had any information they could share as a student or colleague on her. Thank you!

Posted by: Tom On: 12/1/2017 ID: 669
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No After n/a
My Father, who was a furniture mover back in 1958, told me he was working a few miles from OLA on the day of the fire. Suddenly he heard what sounded like dozens of sirens coming from all directions. He says he saw the most emergency vehicles, fire trucks and police cars he had ever seen racing past where he was working. He says they seemed to come out of nowhere and continued to come for a good 10 minutes apparently heading towards the school. He was unaware of what happened until he went home after work and watched the news. The amount of emergency vehicles he saw then made sense to him as the tragedy at OLA was so immense. May God continue to hold all the victims in the palm of his hand and give the survivors and all those who helped during this tragedy strength and courage in their lives.

Posted by: Bonnie Babyak On: 5/14/2017 ID: 668
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Fairview Park (Cleveland) Ohio
I was in second grade at St Angela Merici School. I remember hearing the stories on WGAR radio the next morning as we ate breakfast before going to school. I was mesmerized by such a tragedy and our Mother explained what happened to so many children the same ages as my siblings and me. Others have mentioned having a fire drill the next day at school but I do not remember one. Our school regularly had fire drills and I remember sometimes seeing the fire chief there to observe. He probably did that at all schools in town. The fire dept was only 1/2 block away.

I am so sorry for the families that were affected by this fire. It was a horrible tragedy. So many people remember it and pray for your lost Angels. Also those at the school who were traumatized by it.

Posted by: Karen Carpenter Zigler On: 2/27/2017 ID: 667
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Hamlin Ave across from the school
I went to public school but went to OLA for religion classes every week we walked to the school lived right across from the church and went there on Sunday, made my confirmation there. Had friends that went to the school and lost their lives that day I remember it like it was yesterday I read the book Sleeping with the Angles

Posted by: My name at that time was Gail Watts On: 12/8/2016 ID: 666
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Oak Park, Illinois
I was ten years old, a fifth grader at St. Catherine of Siena grade school, a few miles away from OLA.

Three of the children were buried from our parish, following their funeral Mass, which all of us school children attended.

To this day, I have been unable to reconcile what happened that day. To this day, I have been unable to put my anger to rest because I never got answers to any of my questions. I may have only been ten years old, but this fire and terrible loss of life and horrible injuries never made any sense to me.

Being raised Catholic, I had an even tougher time because we were told cremation was not allowed, but no one could explain to me what would happen when "Jesus returned to earth i the Second Coming" to those who had been burned so badly there was nothing left but ashes.

That is when I began to question and lose my "faith".