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

Behind the Angels


Making music has always been a labor of love for jazz flautist Michael Mason. His latest project though, is a mission of remembrance and hope dedicated to creating at last, a memorial to the victims - and the survivors - of the tragic fire that changed one Chicago community and everyone in it.

Mason was six years old and in the first grade at Our Lady of the Angels parish school on Chicago's West Side on Dec. 1, 1958; the day fire swept through the school and snuffed out the lives of 92 of his fellow students and three of their teachers. Forty years later, the musician - who is also a fire fighter in Downers Grove, IL  - and a group of other survivors are still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

He believes music can help them do it. "Music has the power to heal," Mason said. "This project is not only a way for us to heal, but to help children who have been burned heal, too."

Three years ago Mason began composing music based on the book "To Sleep With the Angels", David Cowan and John Kuenster's 1996 account of the fire and its aftermath. Now, he's preparing to record and distribute the compact disc, "Angels of Fire.'`

Funding for the project has been provided via a $30,000 grant from the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance. Proceeds from the sale of "Angels of Fire' compact discs will underwrite IFSA fire prevention education programs and will help fund  IFSA sponsored summer burn camps serving children injured by fire.

But in addition to its unique philanthropic purpose, the "Angels of Fire" project represents a mission for a group of Our Lady of the Angels fire survivors and surviving members of families who lost loved ones in the incident.

In the 40 years since the fire, survivors and victims' families have intermittently lobbied for an official memorial to be placed at the rebuilt Roman Catholic parish on Chicago's West Side. Without a concrete plaque or statue survivors and their families fear the tragedy will eventually be forgotten. However, the form of the memorial and how it should be established were never fully developed.

So, other survivors have joined Mason to create what they believe will be living memorial to victims, survivors and to the fire fighters who responded to the blaze.

Pamela Orlando-Ryan was a kindergartner in an annex classroom at OLA when the fire in the main building began. She remembers being led with her classmates out of their building onto the sidewalk across the street from the main building, which by then was engulfed in flames. Eight older cousins were in classrooms there.  All survived, but the family spent an agonizing afternoon until hearing one was injured, and the others had returned home from  school.

For her, an ongoing philanthropic fund is life affirming.

"Every anniversary of the fire, there is talk about a memorial," said Orlando-Ryan, a Northbrook, IL resident who through her firm MicroWeb Technologies, Inc. is donating. a internet web page to the "Angels of Fire" project "There are enough reminders without some kind of monument. This CD and the programs its proceeds will fund are the memorial."

Author David Cowan - who is a fire fighter in Bellwood, IL - will also contribute to the effort by writing liner notes for the album's jacket. In addition, he will provide text for an eight-page booklet containing biographies of more than a half-dozen men who, after having survived the OLA fire, became fire fighters themselves.

Mason's compositions for "Angels of Fire" are a blend of world music rhythms performed by an international group of jazz musicians and will be recorded at Southport Records, a Chicago-based independent label with which Mason is already affiliated. Southport will record and master the CD for a one-time fee, and the musicians will be paid for participating in the project. Every penny of proceeds above the production costs will be turned back into a benefit account administered by the IFSA.

Mason expects to begin recording "Angels of Fire" in July. The CD is expected to be released in early Fall, 1999.

"I'm involved with this project because of the effect this fire had on our family and on the neighborhood," said Pam Orlando-Ryan. "Everybody was in it that day; everybody who had kids in school that day was in it."

"And everybody who has kids today can appreciate what this project is going to do," she said.