It was almost time to go home. Sister Mary St. Canice was in the midst of giving us a lot of homework in preparation for a big test. Then, a curious thing began to happen -- the doors began to rattle. Some of us joked about ghosts. But, then I smelled smoke -- then streams of black smoke began to snake through the spaces around the front door of the classroom, and then, so suddenly it seemed, to snake through the back door of the classroom. Two doors faced into the corridor. Sister pleaded for us to stay calm, that perhaps the furnace had backed up. (I remember so well that comment of hers.) One of the boys jumped up and tried to open the back door into the corridor, but the black and furious smoke was too heavy. He slammed the door shut, trying to choke in some air. He ran to the window.
At this point, we realized that something dreadful was happening, but we did not know what to do -- where to go. I recall thinking that I had just been in church the other day, I had received communion, and I was ready to meet God.
Then we saw the flames licking over the tops of the doors and towards the ceiling -- then flames under the doors -- and the dense black choking smoke. Sister yelled to get to the windows.
We were on the top floor. There were, I think, windows along the outside wall of our room. I remember seeing my friend Irene trying to climb onto the radiator to reach the window, but the radiator was so hot that it began to burn through her tights. Her legs were in flames. She could not step back into the room, so she flung herself out the window. (She did ultimately survive, but not without serious injuries).
Other kids and I struggled to get to the windows. I felt almost crushed by the weight of some other kids piled up on top of me. But, as the flames and heat increased, most of them ran to the back windows. I thought I was going to die; but, like I said, I felt ready. That's when Sister Mary St. Canice came up behind me and told me to sit on the window ledge. She helped me struggle out onto the ledge, and as I finally got my legs outside, she gave me a solid push and out into the air I flew. I landed on an overhang covering over the stairs which led into the basement of the building before I bounced on the ground. I could not breath, but I was miraculously alive. Some men, perhaps people from the neighborhood, picked me up and carried me into the candy store which was next door to the school. You see, at this point, the firemen had not yet arrived. I don't remember much after that, just that I lay on the floor until finally being removed by ambulance to the hospital. But, I do vividly remember that as I was being taken away, snow began to fall ... as if God's and the angels' icy tears were being shed.
However fortunate, I was not seriously injured and received only minor burns. My hair had burned away a few inches and I received serious contusions. But, no bones were broken. The only thing that broke was my heart. I learned later that Sister never made it, along with twelve of my classmates. My very good friend Christine Vitacco never made it. But, I always knew she would earn her angel wings. If not for Sister Mary St. Canice, I would not have survived that fire. I pray to her sometimes -- I know she is in heaven as are all the other little angels that were made that day.
* * *
For some odd reason, the memory of that day has been haunting me this past week and I searched web sites until I found this one today. I feel I need to tell my story. I need to cry with other survivors. I need to share these feelings which have been stuffed for so many years.
If there are survivors out there who would like to connect, my website at home is email@example.com.
To Mike Guzaldo, please write me. I understand.