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

"To Sleep With The Angels"
The Story of a Fire
Image of the book To Sleep With The Angels by David Cowan and John Kuenster
by David Cowan and John Kuenster
Published: 1996
Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, Inc.
    1332 North Halsted Street
    Chicago, IL 60622
    ISBN: 1566631025
Available from Amazon.com

Reviews of To Sleep With the Angels
On a grey winter day in December 1958, one of the deadliest fires in American history took the lives of ninety-two children and three nuns at a Catholic elementary school on Chicago's West Side. The blaze at Our Lady of the Angels School shocked the nation. It left many families physically and psychologically scarred for life, destroyed a close-knit working-class neighborhood, and sowed popular suspicion of the church hierarchy and city fathers. No one was ever prosecuted for setting the fire; to this day it remains an officially unsolved mystery. In To Sleep with the Angels, two veteran journalists tell the moving story of the fire and its consequences. David Cowan and John Kuenster have worked for years, talking with hundreds of sources and ferreting our documents to reconstruct a minute-by-minute narrative of the tragedy and the sorrows of its aftermath. It is a story of ordinary people caught up in a mind-numbing disaster. In gripping detail, the authors describe the fear, desperation, and panic that prevailed among children, teachers, firefighters, and parents in and around the stricken school building on that cold Monday afternoon. Beyond the flames, the story of the fire at Our Lady of the Angels became an enigma whose mystery has deepened with time: its cause was never officially explained despite evidence that it had been intentionally set by a troubled student at the school. The authors reveal for the first time this youngster's "confession" and the decision by a local judge not to pursue the case against him. The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago also refused to press an investigation, preferring to label the fire a terrible "accident."

Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) school burned in 1958, killing 92 young children and three nuns. Yet this book is the first and only comprehensive story of this tragedy.

Mr. Cowan and Mr. Kuenster have collaborated to produce a book that covers in significant detail the events of December 1, 1958 at Our Lady of the Angels. They relate what happened, minute by minute, in each of the six north wing classrooms most heavily affected by the fire. Much of the story is told through the eyes of children who experienced it and lived to tell, as well as family members of victims, firefighters and clergy. They reveal how the first fire department units were incorrectly directed to the Rectory around the corner from the school, costing valuable minutes. They explain why so many lives were lost, and why students and teachers had virtually no warning that a disaster was about to befall them. They tell the story of the 13-year-old boy who in 1962 confessed to setting the Our Lady of the Angels school fire, how he came to make this confession, and why he recanted it later in court. They confirm what many have always believed, that the school Janitor, James Raymond, not only was not responsible for the fire, but was a hero who saved dozens of children from certain death. They show the impact the fire had on clergy, the Chicago Archdiocese, the City of Chicago and Mayor Daley's administration, the firefighters and families whose children were killed or injured - and the nation.

This is a superb book - a heartbreaking story, told tastefully yet unflinchingly. It really drives home the importance of fire safety - especially, of course, in schools. I cannot recommend this book highly enough!