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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: Mary On: 8/25/2014 ID: 648
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Silver Spring, Maryland
I was 10 years old on 1 December 1958 and attended St. Michael's Catholic School in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was in the 5th grade, the same grade as many of those who died in the fire. I remember hearing about the fire as it was occurring, and feeling devastated and spooked. Afterwards, I was scared to be in my 5th grade classroom on the second floor of my school, but soothed myself with the knowledge that most of my school, including my classroom, was made of brick, steel and other hard-to-burn materials. Steel stairs to the outside were directly outside one of the doors to my classroom. Another wing of our school apparently was older and didn't have a lot of steel in it. The school's boiler room was in the basement of that wing, right next to the back stairs. I remember seeing trash bins in the boiler room. In our school, kids were sent down to the boiler room to empty trash cans as well! The set-up at my school reminded me of some of the information I had heard about Our Lady of the Angels School. I remember seeing a workman installing a metal door at the bottom of those stairs, in the basement, about a month after the fire at Our Lady of the Angels. I was spooked, scared and haunted by the fire for a long time. And, to some extent, I still am. I identified with those children who were in the Chicago fire. Almost every year, on 1 December, I remember what happened in the Our Lady of the Angels School fire. About five years ago, I visited the site and saw the church and the new school. This truly is "the fire that won't die" for me. I cannot forget it. It is eerie. I finally read the book "To Sleep With The Angels," and thought it unusual that the info I had heard about the fire on the day it occurred was mostly consistent with the account told in the book.

Posted by: Judy Jackson On: 8/5/2014 ID: 647
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Adjacent neighborhood/parish Help of Christians "H.O.C."
I was 10 years old, a student at John Hay public school. My mother picked me up at school that day to take me to my grandmother's. We were driving east on Augusta Blvd, probably about 3:10 pm. We could see the smoke and hear fire sirens. I saw people walking kids wrapped in blankets away from the school. Later, I remember seeing the Chicago American newspaper with all the kids' photos. Survivors from OLA were brought to John Hay to attend school. Our classrooms were on the first and second floors. The OLA kids were up on the third floor. I remember feeling sorry for them, having to be way up there on the third floor after what they had gone through. Our school looked so similar to theirs, same age and type of construction. The first or second day the fire alarms suddenly went off. It wasn't the usual fire drill as we knew about those in advance, so it was unsettling. I remember thinking some mean kid must have pulled the alarm to scare the kids, but I figure now that it was probably planned to see how long it would take to evacuate the third floor. I hope the OLA kids were told it was just a drill. I met a survivor of the fire, a girl my age who had broken her arm jumping from a second floor classroom window. We moved soon afterward out of state so I never learned anything about the aftermath and investigation until a few years ago when I came across the book To Sleep With the Angels. I hope all of the families and survivors have been able to find some peace and solace.

Posted by: James On: 7/29/2014 ID: 646
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Littleton, Colorado
I was 8 years old in 3rd grade outside of Denver, Colorado in 1958. I remember reading about the fire the next day in the Denver Post. I had trouble sleeping for 2 nights because I was afraid our school might catch fire.

Posted by: Joanne On: 7/11/2014 ID: 645
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 a was a relatively new to force Chicago Police officer in 1958. I only know that he was present at the fire because my mother told me. He never ever spoke of it. I always wanted to ask him about it but my mom said he could not discuss it at all because of the the sheer tragedy of the day and the emotional toil it took on him.

Posted by: Kristy Speer On: 7/11/2014 ID: 644
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Worth, Illinois near 115th and Harlem
First, I pray for all who were affected by the fire. Reading about the fire, I have mixed feelings of sorrow, and fear. I learned of the fire from a Facebook group, Living History of Chicago and Illinois. I was under 2 years-old when this tragedy happened, but I benefited from from the improved fire standards. My husband is older than me and he clearly remembers the fire, what the building looked like, and all of the news reporting. As children, we were terrified by fire drills, and as a high school teacher, I know that even some of my 16-18 year-old students get frightened by the monthly fire drills. I am so grateful for those fire drills now! I am the granddaughter, daughter, mother, and wife of firefighters. We live in AZ now. I am passing on the information about the fire to my son, an AZ firefighter.

Posted by: Donna Steffens On: 6/10/2014 ID: 643
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Six blocks from OLA
I went to Ryerson Elementary School and could see the smoke from the fire at OLA. My cousin Kathy was in the first grade and as soon as our school dismissed us, I ran to my Aunt's house to tell her. She lived a few houses from us. My aunt had already left for the school. She frantically searched for my cousin. It was a very cold day and the homes across from the school took in the first graders, so my cousin was somewhat shielded from the scene that day. Our whole neighborhood was in mourning. A boy in 7th grade who lived across the street from us was one of the victims. It was the worse experience of my childhood and I always remember Dec 1st as the day so many children lost their lives.

Posted by: Patricia On: 6/4/2014 ID: 642
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before We live on St.Louis
I was only 3 years old when the fire happened and I remeber standing there with my mom and my borthers. I too visit all the children at Queen of Heaven on a regular basis. My mom went to OLA. I also worked with nurses that were in training at St.Annes Hospital and we always seem to get on the subject of the fire. My parents had friends and neighbors who's children were either parrished or hurt. It was and always will be a very sad day to remeber. I have read about every student that is on this website that was lost and my heart just aches for them and their families. My prayers will always be with them and their families.

Posted by: Carol On: 6/4/2014 ID: 641
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No After n/a
I read about the fire in the Catholic Digest, and I never forgot it to this day. I was in parochial school at the time. Our classrooms, also, were wall-to-wall desks. One wing of our school still had wooden flooring. This website brings back to me so vividly those years.
In those days, private schools often got the kind of "grandfathering" leniency about codes that became such a tragedy for Our Lady of the Angels. As I look back, I think that there was less worry and fewer precautions taken about dangers like fire. I wonder if it was because the threat of nuclear war loomed so large that other disasters seemed small by comparison. Or possibly, when news was not accessible 24/7, it was less easy to imagine a disaster happening to you. In any case, a thing like a locked exit door would not have seemed the outrageous stupidity it would be today.
Elsewhere on this website it is noted that no emotional counseling was offered the victims and their families. This seems incredibly callous to us today, but oldsters like me remember that such counseling didn't exist then; we should understand that it was not something readily available and callously withheld.
About 10 years ago, a young firefighter told me that the fire at Our Lady of the Angels is one that she and her colleagues studied. I am glad it has not been forgotten. I am glad that we reverence the memory of all who suffered, and that the tragedy is part of building knowledge and skills to benefit those who were unborn when it happened.

Posted by: Diane Clay On: 4/5/2014 ID: 640
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Cicero, iIll.
I was in Kindergarten at St. Mary's in Cicero. I remember people and teachers taking about the fire. It gave me bad dreams. I saw my school on fire. Then they remolded our school and I felt better. I didn't think of it for a while. Then fires were happening in our town. A boy was accused of setting the fires. People were killed. Then they said he set the fire at Our Lady of the Angels. Some of our nuns were very upset. They talked about what happen. We were a little scared. The years went by. I moved away. I live in Wisconsin now. Someone started a fire at a school I taught at. I am retired now. It was early in the morning. No one was there. There was a lot of damage. I was talking that we should be glad that school wasn't in secession. Than it hit me. Not like the school in Chicago. Our Lady of the Angels. I was in tears. I haven't known anyone from the school or the fire. I was so confused. I found this web site. And I also read the book To Sleep with the Angels. It has helped me understand what happen and to fine some peace. I guess it has been with me for these 55 years. My school looked so much like Our Lady of the Angels. They were built around the same time. St. Mary's is still standing. No longer a school. A hundred year old building. May they rest in peace now.

Posted by: averd On: 3/26/2014 ID: 639
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Chicago Ave between Ridgeway and Hamlin
I only heard the story because I was only 1 yrs old when the fire happened. My mom told me that she heard there was a fire at the school and she ran and left me sleeping in my crib to go find my 3 older brothers....She could not find them at first but eventually she did at a house nearby the school. My oldest brother in the 8th grade probably survived partly because he was in the basement packing up clothes for the poor instead of his upstairs classroom. They were very fortunate that day. Ironically, my 3 older brothers have all since passed away. Anthony Verdone my oldest brother at 39 yrs old, then Carl Verdone at 46 years old, and the 3rd James Verdone at 55 years old. At least they had the opportunity to grow into adults and live their lives, however brief, rather than dying as children as the many other tragedies of that day. God Bless them all.