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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: Patrick On: 12/10/2014 ID: 652
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Superior and Lavergne Student at HOC Help of Christians
Today 12/10/14 a fire at the Firehouse restaurant on s Michigan ave burned for app 3 hrs .. The building is a Chicago landmark .. Like OLA it was built around the turn of the 20th century 1905 I believe .. From the 20th floor of my hi rise south loop dwelling / office this building looked hauntingly similar in it's construction in that the roof did collapse from the intense heat as this fire progressed ..

I watched from above unable to conduct my business or do anything but reflect in horror as many whom actually witnessed the OLA fire whom wished they had'nt ? The victims whom escaped all of whom injured with emotional psychological disorders and to many physically scarred ..

Funny how human nature makes you stay and makes you not turn away ? Only to continue watching while it traumatizes you as the tragedy unfolds ..

That same greyish color at first for only a few minutes at most then changing to that same thick black billowing horror from years of paint oil tar shellac as was the OLA fire now suddenly in moments huge flames shooting up from the 2nd floor windows and roof of this landmark structure along with this disgusting smoke ..

Reflecting back 56 yrs in a heart beat .. I could see the smoke from our 2nd story apt on Superior st hearing the sirens up and down Chicago ave coming and going from OLA.. Then north went the ambulances on to Lavergne st north to St Annes only blocks away .. Many people running down Chicago ave east bound to the fire scene only to later regret they had ..

The survivors from this day including myself ( I feel like a survivor traumatized ) became classmates for app 1.5 yrs after the fire.. At our school Our Lady Help of Christians ( HOC ) whereas we were forbidden to interact with our new classmates while they arrived by CTA buses for their afternoon classes .. We were cleared away at noon for this purpose..

To all of you ? For some in later years ( OLA victims /survivors )that I met whom also found it weird and strange to not interact wih us HOC students at all ? I am appalled and apologise for the BVM's ( order of nun's) at HOC and OLA along with the arch diocese for your having been treated ( I felt ) as "Lepers" ? This by your transitional community ! HOC was only app 1/2 mile west of OLA .. I did get to meet some of you however in spite of this outrage !

This day haunts like no other for the past 56yrs for me .. This fire today at this Firehouse restaurant had that same look without the obvious loss of human life and the serious physical and psychological trauma for many of us as far away as across the world ! No one hurt in this fire today thank almighty GOD moreover no fatalities .. However up close as I was today ? I could see where no one stood any chance once this fire took hold ? So fast and intense !

If this were a school ? Same 2nd story windows with black billowing smoke and flames with seconds instead of minutes between the time that smoke turned grey to black just like OLA.. Then some few minutes after the thick ugly black smoke I saw some flames break through the roof the firemen pouring water from the snorkels and they got there on time ! Then the roof collapses it "flashed over" like a review of the OLA fire without the haunting nite mare ending.. Shocking ! Early plans is to restore this landmark structure .. May God Bless all of you !


Posted by: Sharon Leigh Germain Vale On: 12/1/2014 ID: 651
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
Yes Before Morton Grove, IL
Back when I went to St. Isaac's, we had a small "Thanksgiving Vacation" -- that is, we got a week off for Thanksgiving. So I happened to be home on December 1, 1958. I was 8 and a half. I remember my mom coming down to the basement where I was playing and giving me my coat. "We have to go to Aunt Elaine's," she said. I knew something was wrong. We walked together to Dempster Street and rode the bus to the city (my mom did not know how to drive until I was much older.} I remember we made a transfer, then rode the second bus.... my mom was crying. I rode in a daze.

We got off and walked a few long blocks to a scene of INCREDIBLE horror -- smoke, noise, fire engines, crowds -- and firemen coming down the ladders with CHILDREN in their arms -- I saw at least two dozen. They looked like they were sleeping. I remember thinking their clothes were dirty and wondering how they let them go to school with dirty clothes and faces. I clung to my mom. She was wearing a babushka (I remember her face SO clearly -- she was crying, worried, distraught and very beautiful. My mom was gorgeous in those days -- a beautiful brunette.) It was winter but I remember it was dark and dreary but not snowing... a terrible day.

We had moved to Morton Grove over two years before, but previous to that had lived in the city where we spent a lot of time with my cousins with whom we remained very close after the move. We lived at their house for the last few months that our house in Morton Grove was being built. During that time, my cousin Linda Ruzek and her neighbor, Jimmy Ragona, were my best friends -- and had been basically since BIRTH. Jimmy was a year older than me, and I adored him. We liked to pretend he was my "big brother." His mom, "Auntie Alice," was someone I adored -- she gave me my first lasagna and cannolis, and always had wonderful little Italian almond candies when I visited. Her husband was "Uncle Angelo" but we all called him Boppa. They lived on Trumbull Avenue, a few houses away from my aunt and uncle, Elaine and Clare Ruzek.

To this day I swear what I tell you now was TRUE and not a figment of my imagination. My mom was talking with a group of ladies when I saw Jimmy. He was dressed in a white shirt and tie. He was standing with a blonde girl, a little older than us, and she had long ringlets in her hair. He looked "very clean and bright" (I remember describing him later to mom and dad exactly that way.) Jimmy turned and waved at me, smiling. I remember asking my mom if I could go play with him and she bent down and hugged me for a long time and said "Maybe later." She was crying.

Well, long story short, I remember Auntie Alice crying, "That's ROOM 210... They're all from Room 210!!!" and my mom and Aunt Elaine hugging her and trying to hold her back. I had never before seen an hysterical adult.

It was later that I realized Jimmy was one of the children pulled from Room 210. I couldn't figure it out when they told me. "Why did he go back in?" I kept asking and they were all at a loss -- I think they thought I was so upset that I was confused.

I still and always will miss him. We used to pretend we were brother and sister and I clearly remember (about age 7 -- at my First Communion party) one time when another adult questioned whether we were really related (I guess we didn't realize we looked different) and Auntie Alice laughing and replying, "Why? You don't think she speaks Italian?" and then all of them laughing. For months after that, I went around speaking in weird syllables (Coachie otta tooie?" and stuff like that) so that people would think I spoke Italian.


Posted by: Karen Rose On: 11/27/2014 ID: 650
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No After n/a
I attended a Catholic school in Illinois as a child. The school I went to had 3 buildings, 2 of them looked quite a bit like Our Lady Of The Angels school. Brick, very high ceilings, fire alarms very high off the floor, same kind of stairways. I remember being afraid to be in the older brick buildings because of hearing about the OLA fire. If a fire had ever broken out in those old buildings, the same tragedy would have ensued. They have been torn down now and a newer building is there now.
When I was older, I read a lot of things about the OLA fire and it is one of the worst tragedies that has ever taken place. Every year on December 1st, I think about the victims and pray for them. I hope their families were able to move on with their lives and find some kind of peace.


Posted by: Rene Girardi On: 11/6/2014 ID: 649
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before 831 N. Pulaski, Chicago, IL
I was only 4 years old but I remember that day. We lived close to OLA, and could see the smoke from the school. My mother screamed to my father who was just coming home that the school is on fire. My father was a plumbing contractor and had long ladders. He, and another plumber took a long ladder and ran to the school to help the fire department. He was always silent about that day. I was the first, first grade in the new school. Many of my friends and my parents friends lost children and siblings that day. I was baptized, made my first communion, confirmed and graduated from Our Lady of the Angels. The fire, for those of us that lived in and with the church and school has never left us. It's part of our living history, and part of who we are.


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.