Every year about this time I search the web for anything about the OLA fire and several weeks ago I found this website.
I haven't suffered the personal loss that so many have nor was my family destroyed. My father kept me isolated from what happened after the fire but I still carry it. Here are some ramblings I'll call my story.
I was in Room 208 and I think the first desk in the window row or the one right next to that. Philip Tampone sat next to me, but I was closer to window. I recall Phil wore glasses with chrome or some sort of reflective arms. Phil didn't make it. My mom took me to his wake at the Lupo funeral home on Chicago Ave.
The classroom doors were closed and the doors were rattling. Sister thought the 8th graders were lined up in the hall and that they were leaning against the door. Sister told someone to go the door and tell the 8th graders to move away. Whoever tried to open the door couldn't. It seems to me that either Sister told someone else to try or tried herself to open the door. That's about the time the smoke started oozing in quickly around the doors. I think Sister told the taller boys to open the windows as the smoke began to fill the room then told us to sit and pray. A boy whose name I remember as Mike (found out later it was Mike Nagle .. he passed away about 8 years ago) said something like "I'm getting out of here." Somehow, I leaned over a window ledge (I was very short then) and saw flames shooting from the stairwell landing window. I've always been terrified of heights but I crawled out onto (I heard the sound of glass breaking behind me) and over the window ledge and wound up hanging there for what seems like a very long time but was probably a few seconds. I let go but didn't fall very far as I landed first on the roof of the outside entrance to the basement chapel and then rolled off that to the ground. Jimmy Krajewski hit the ground about the same time I did. I learned later that both his legs or ankles were broken. I sprained my left ankle..that was it. When I was still a boy, I often wondered why I was so lucky because of the hole in the roof over where my desk was.
The first thing I did after getting on the ground was run into the grocery store across the alley and call my parents. I remember the first ladders being brought up to the building as I was running to the store. Mom told me years later that my dad ran all the way to the school. We lived in the 1200 block of Pulaski then and that's easily a mile or a bit more from the school. I know I ran around looking for my brother who was in 2nd grade on the first floor on the Iowa St. side of the school. I eventually found him or he found me. Somehow, we wound up in someone's house toward the north end of Avers. I don't remember much else after that. Dad took us home when he found us and wouldn't let us go near the school until after Christmas. I went there anyway.
After the fire there were the bus rides to Help of Christians for half day sessions and I was in the group sent to finish out the year at Orr school on Keeler (or was it John Hay school on Laramie Ave?). My parents bought a house out of the parish in the 1400 block of north Kildare the following April. OLA wouldn't let me finish 8th grade the next year because of that so I attended Sts. Cyril and Methodius school at Kildare and Walton.
I attended OLA from 2nd through 7th grades and classes in the north wing of the school just twice. The first time was 5th grade and Room 210 with Sister Mary Albia (I'll never forget her). The second was 7th grade and Room 208. My best friend back then was Gary Wassinger. Gary's sister was in Room 210 at the time of the fire and I know she was burned some but got out safely down a ladder. The fire has stayed with her these many years and with Gary. He was in the south wing in Sister Andrienne's room.
As the years have passed the fire has come back to me in a few unique ways. Our family doctor was a Dr. Olechowski, Janet Olechowski's uncle. During the late '70's and early '80's I was living and working in the Dallas area and found Michelle McBride's book quite by accident in an obscure bookstore. Sometime in the spring of '96 I stopped at the Barnes and Noble bookstore across Rte. 83 from Oakbrook Centre for no reason I can remember and found Cowen & Kuenster promoting their book. I had no idea the book had been published. I bought the book that day with their autograph and finished reading it that evening. I spoke with them after their presentation and they told me about a group known as 'Friends of OLA' that was driven by Joseph Maffiola's younger sister, Linda. She was three at the time of the fire but founded and drove the group because her childhood and family were destroyed by the fire. I recall going with the group to the mass grave in Hillside in December of that year for a memorial service. I lost track of them as I was travelling quite a bit then. Sometime in the late 90's I came across a website that was offering a music cd dedicated to the fire victims. The proceeds went to some fireman's fund.
I remember the tragedy but I also remember the happier times of a young boy in a city neighborhood in the '50's. Those also stay with me. There were the years as a patrol boy at the Division and Hamlin intersection and the years as an altar boy. In third grade, Sister Andrienne was to have been the teacher but I remember her introducing Miss Tristano as our teacher. That must have been her first year at OLA. All I can remember of her is her legs .. and I was in 3rd grade ... ooboy
I can recall Sister Andrienne picking me and one or two others out of class one day and dragging us upstairs to her class and making us read aloud from the big blue American history book. I think it was to show her class that 3rd graders could read better than her class was.
We lived at 1231 N. Pulaski back then and directly across the street from the Crystal Bakery.
Andy Lego - Hoffman Estates, IL