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

Our Lady Of The Angels, 1958
The fire that shocked a nation

By David Cowan and John Kuenster

That afternoon, Monday, December 1, Sam Tortorice had just returned home to his two-flat on Hamlin Avenue, directly across the street from Our Lady of the Angels Church. He had spent the day shopping, and he was reaching inside his car to collect his grocery bags when he noticed the pungent odor of burning wood. Tortorice, 42, was short, dark haired, and wore glasses. He looked up in the direction of the smell. It was strong. He took only a few steps before he saw a cloud of black smoke rolling from the top of the parish school. Inside were his two daughters, 13-year-old Rose and 11-year-old Judy.

Tortorice took off running for the burning building. When he reached the front of the school on Avers, he saw the smoke-filled windows overlooking the courtway. There was Rose among the frightened faces crowding the far window of Room 209.

"Rose," he screamed, "wait! I'm coming!"

Tortorice ran around to the Iowa Street doors, where he entered the school and, dodging children making their way down, ran up the stairs to the second floor. There he made his way into the annex corridor, then crawled to a set of windows overlooking the courtway and directly adjacent to the windows in room 209. Tortorice threw up the sash, then swung his left leg over the ledge. Straddling the windowsill, he reached over with his arms and began swinging the panicky eighth-graders into the annex.

"Rose," he yelled, "come closer!"

Try as she might, Rose could not reach the rescuing hands of her father. She was stuck behind the others lined up at the window. With smoke pouring over her head, she pleaded for help. "Daddy," she cried, "come quick!"

Tortorice knew he had to reposition himself. He swung his legs over the window ledge, lowering himself down onto a small canopy roof set over a doorway directly beneath him. Another neighbor had tossed a ladder over the fence into the blocked courtway. Tortorice dropped down to the pavement and grabbed the ladder, using it to climb back up onto the canopy. "Hold on," he shouted to the kids above.

At about the same time, Father Joseph Ognibene, returning in his car to the rectory after lunch with friends, saw smoke pouring from the school and children being led outside.

Tall, dark-skinned, and athletic, "Father Joe" was 32, the senior curate assigned to the parish. He was popular with the students and active in the school's physical education programs.

Father Ognibene screeched his car to a halt, curbing it in front of the convent, then darted across the street and entered the school through the front doors. It was approximately 2:40 p.m. The first call to the fire department had yet to be made.

Bounding up the stairs to the second-floor landing, Father Ognibene was met by a scene of crowded confusion. Some of the students gathering in the hallway were frightened by the thickening smoke. Father Joe didn't fully realize what was happening, but he knew he had to hurry them down.

"Let's get going," he shouted. The priest began shoving the students one by one toward the stairs. One of the children having difficulty was a sixth-grade girl. She had polio, and the heavy metal braces strapped to her legs were causing her to struggle. Father Ognibene scooped the girl into his arms and carried her down the stairs. He didn't care that her braces tumbled off when he did so. After handing the girl off to a nun, he raced back up the stairs to the second floor. It was then Father Ognibene realized that something more terrible than he imagined was unfolding.

Unable to stand up because of the worsening smoke, he dropped to his hands and knees and began crawling through the dark abyss of smoke filling the tiny annex corridor, headed for the doomed classrooms of the north wing. He was able to go as far as the end of the corridor but that was all. Beyond him in the smoke were raging flames, which cut off further access. On his left were the two corner windows facing the courtway. Father Ognibene looked out and saw Tortorice standing on the ladder, trying to lift children out of Room 209. "Here," the priest yelled, "swing them to me."

Quickly, Ognibene doffed his black suit coat and clerical vest, then hoisted himself up to the ledge of the corner window adjacent to Room 209. Straddling the window frame, he leaned out, placing himself in position to help Tortorice by reaching for students hanging from the adjacent window. Together, the two men proceeded with their daring joint rescue: Tortorice yanking the children from the burning classroom, Ognibene reaching out and swinging them into the annex.

Father charles hund was feeling ill.

The 27-year-old priest had celebrated Mass that morning in the parish church, and after lunch had decided to retire to his second-floor room in the rectory. The flu had left him tired and sluggish. He laid himself across his bed and went to sleep.

He'd been napping for more than an hour when the first screams came filtering through the wall.

"Help! Please help us!"

The priest stirred and sat up, damp with sweat. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock. Two-thirty. Some dream, he thought. He lay back down and closed his eyes.

He heard it again.

"Help! The school's on fire!"

The sole window in Father Hund's dimly lit quarters was next to his bed and faced the back of the school. He leaned over to peer through the curtains. What he saw sent him reeling. Crowding the windows directly across the narrow gangway were a dozen or so terrified faces of students, smoke pouring over their heads. The children were banging on the window frame, shouting, "Father! Save us!"

The children, he knew, were in Room 207, the "Cheese Box," so called because of its small dimensions. The classroom had once housed the school's library. It was located near the southeast corner of the wing, next to the building's only fire escape. But Father Hund could see that the fire escape door was closed, that no one was coming down. He sprang from the bed, threw on a leather jacket over his T-shirt, and ran out the back door.

Father Hund ran into the gangway and looked up. Smoke was pouring out of the school. "Hang on," he shouted. "I'm coming." He slipped through the back door of the school's annex and bounded up a flight of stairs to the second floor. When he reached the landing, he found the smoke so thick that he couldn't see more than a foot ahead.

Instinctively, he dropped to his knees and began crawling through the narrow corridor, inching his way forward, trying to get into the north wing. But even here, near the floor, he couldn't escape the choking effect of the smoke. He knew he had to get out.

The young priest backed out of the corridor and retreated down the stairs, all the way to the basement. He was arguing with himself. He had to get back up to the second floor. But how?

He dashed through the chapel at the bottom of the north wing, then through a door in the boiler room that opened into the small area at the foot of the northeast stairwell where the fire had originated. Curiously, the flames here had subsided a little, though the area was super hot, with fire licking through the stairs themselves. Hund decided to try them anyway.

He was ducking burning embers and falling debris when a harried face appeared in the darkness. It belonged to the janitor, Jim Raymond, and he looked horrible. Raymond, too, had worked his way up to the smoky second floor, managing to open one window, using his flashlight to break out another. But in breaking the window, he had caught his arm on a piece of jagged glass, slicing open his left wrist. He was bent over, squeezing it with his right hand, trying to stop the flow of blood.

Father Hund grabbed his arm. "What the hell's going on?"

"I don't know," Raymond replied, confused from blood loss.

The priest motioned to Room 207. "Why can't they get out?"

"They can't. The fire's too bad."

"What about the back door? By the fire escape?"

"It's locked."

"You got a key?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Then open the damn thing."

Matt plovanich was lying on his back, watching smoke fill up the Cheese Box.

The fifth-grader was slowly losing consciousness, contemplating the oddity of dying at 10, trying hard to remember what his nuns had always preached. "You never know when God is going to come calling on you. Always be ready."

Matt's teacher, Sister Mary Geraldita Ennis, was somewhere inside the room, lost in the darkness amid her 40 fifth- and sixth-graders. When smoke first invaded the classroom around the door cracks, she rose to investigate. The front door faced the burning stairway, and when she opened it, a wall of flame was blocking the exit.

Sister Geraldita was just five feet tall. She was strict but fair, with a good sense of humor.

After closing the front door, she started quickly for the room's back door. The back exit opened into the narrow, coat-lined hallway separating Rooms 207 and 206 and led to the building's only fire escape.

But when Sister Geraldita grabbed the door knob, it didn't turn. It was locked. She reached into her pocket, feeling for her key. It was empty. She closed her eyes, remembering now that she had been running late that morning and had left her keys in the convent.

"Come here," waved Sister Geraldita, gathering the students in a semicircle near the back of the room. "We're in trouble. We must pray for help."

She began leading the class in the Rosary, but as the room turned pitch black, all control was lost. The children started screaming in terror. They were huddled in the back corner of the room, Matt among them, pressing their faces against the smooth wooden floor, trying to breathe. A few broke ranks and rushed to the windows overlooking the small gangway behind the school. They flung up the sashes and cried out.

"Help! Help! Save us! Save us!"

One boy picked up a planter and hurled it out the window, against the wall of the adjacent rectory. Another boy leaped out the window, landing on the fire escape below. The rest of the class stayed down on the floor, waiting uncertainly.

Just then, Matt heard a tearing noise, like someone ripping apart an old T-shirt. There in the smoke stood the janitor, Mr. Raymond. Father Hund was behind him. "C'mon!" they yelled. "This way! It's clear!"

For little Matt Plovanich, it was like the cavalry coming; the men might have been wearing blue hats.

Smoke rushed out the open back door as Matt and his classmates climbed to their feet. They were sluggish, unsteady, slow-moving. "Let's go!" yelled Father Hund. "Faster! Faster!" The men started grabbing the children by their collars, pulling them up off the floor, shoving them out the door.

Raymond followed them out. He was shaking, sweating, holding his bloody wrist. Squeezing his way between the children, he moved to the front of the line, then shoved open the door leading to the weighted steel fire escape ladder that dropped down into the gangway behind the school. But the youngsters, frightened and hesitant, balked. Intense heat inside their room was blowing out the windows above them, and the sound of shattering glass was scary.

"Keep going!" shouted Father Hund.

The line started moving. Soon they were down. Sister Geraldita was the last person to leave the classroom. As soon as she exited, it burst into flames. When she reached the top of the fire escape, she too hesitated. Her face was reddened and she was coughing on smoke. She turned to Father Hund, making a move to return to the room. "I can't go!" she screamed. "They're not all out!"

Father Hund was not entirely sure himself that all the students had made it out safely. But it no longer mattered. The room was awash in flames. There was no turning back.

"No!" he barked. "Keep going!"

He grabbed the frightened nun by the arm and together they fled down the ladder, praying - but not yet knowing - that all the students had indeed escaped, that Room 207 would be the only second-floor classroom in the north wing not to record a fatality.

Condensed from the book To Sleep With the Angels © 1996 by David Cowan and John Kuenster. Used with permission of the publisher, Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1332 N. Halsted St., Chicago, Ill. 60622.

To Sleep With the Angels is a Catholic Digest Book Club selection.

Top image by Stephen Lasker/Chicago Tribune Files
Bottom two images by New World Publications