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

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Tragic blaze stuns city


In 1958, a fire stunned the city and the nation.

On Dec. 1, 92 children and three nuns were killed in the blaze at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School at 3810 W. Iowa, sending the city into mourning.

A girl is carried down a ladder at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School, where a 1958 fire killed 92 children and three nuns. The blaze led to building code changes in Chicago and elsewhere.
It was the city's deadliest fire since the 1903 Iroquois Theater blaze, which claimed 602 lives.

Rosalie Lutzka, who was an eighth-grader in second-floor classroom No. 209, has vivid memories of the heat, dense smoke and children's screams.

"A day doesn't go by that I don't think of it," she said. "You wonder why you were spared. You wonder what could have been, if friends killed in the fire had grown up, married and had children.

"Some who survived had no physical scars, but they were scarred mentally. You don't forget. But you go on with your life," said Lutzka, of Streamwood, now married and the mother of two grown children.

Lutzka, who escaped unhurt, said students in her class were among the first to discover the fire when the classroom suddenly became hot and black smoke billowed under the door. "We were scared to death," she said.

Their teacher, Sister Davidas Devine, who suffered burns in the fire and was praised for her quick thinking, helped save all but two of her 62 eighth-graders. The nun had students pile books against classroom doors to try to keep out smoke.

Then, most boys and some girls in 209 leaped to the top of a wooden first-floor canopy, Lutzka said. A parish priest, the Rev. Joseph Ognibene, who suffered burns, and a neighbor, Sam Tortorice, teamed up to swing trapped students, including Lutzka, from a window in Room 209 to an adjoining classroom, where they exited safely, Lutzka said.

The cause of the fire was listed officially as unknown, but several investigators said it appeared to be arson. They theorized it was set in a trash can in a basement stairwell. The fire led to changes in building codes in Chicago and elsewhere.

November 19, 1999