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

Nurse Remembers Holiday Tragedy

by Dorothy V. Taylor, R.N.
Published in Indiana State Nurses Association District Ten Quarterly Newsletter in December, 2000

Subject: Our Lady of Angels School Fire

Date: December 1958
Deaths: 90 Students and 3 Nuns
Injured: 77 students and 1 Nun
Nursing Perspective:

Clergy, doctors, and nurses from all over the country answered the call for help. I was not home that day. I heard the news the next morning on the TV and radio when there was a request for help by medical personnel. I had just finished a refresher course at Wesley Memorial/Northwestern University. I had not worked for 17 years while raising a family. So I was very apprehensive about volunteering for this mission. Our daughter, son and husband encouraged me to call. In an instant, I was assigned a patient and I was to start immediately. My husband, who was an Episcopal priest, took me to St. Ann's Hospital. One part of the hospital was set aside for the burned and injured children. My patient was a beautiful blue-eyed blonde girl. Her face and hair were not burned. When we turned back the covers, we could see her burned body. There were two nurses for each shift to take care of her. There were all kinds of machines in the room, and she had continuous saline dressings. She could not do anything for herself, as her arms were burned so severely. The next day the other nurse said she thought I would not come back, but I did for 12 weeks, without a day off. After a few days the other nurse was assigned to another child.

Valerie was given the first circo-electric bed in Chicago (only one other bed was bought as they were expensive, that one went to another hospital for another of the burned children.) With the bed, her position could be changed to upright, face down, or any position in between. As the children improved, many nurses had to return to their hospitals or work places, so the nurses who were left had to take care of their patients and help with the others.

The Nun who was burned could be heard moaning. She was able to get all of the students out of the burning room except one she could not see. Instead of being thankful for the many students' lives that were spared, she could not forgive herself for the one she did not rescue.

It was thought someone started the fire under the stairs, so the stair could not be used. The students had to jump or be dropped from the windows, or wait for the firemen and their ladders.

At Christmas, all the children wanted to go home, so a few were taken home by ambulance. Not Valerie; she and the others had to stay in the hospital. There were gifts sent from all over the nation, including TVs. Every child received many gifts and flowers. Their room and the hospital were beautifully decorated. There was almost continuous Christmas music from the many choir groups who came to entertain the children. There was a steady stream of clergy - Bishops, priests, and nuns all offering gifts or offering help. Because I worked on Christmas day, our daughter, Martha, and our son, Richard, were permitted to visit Valerie and her family. There was an exchange of gifts. Valerie and Martha were able to talk on the telephone almost every day when Valerie was recovering. Of course, someone had to hold the phone for Valerie.

Sometime later, I prepared Valerie, her wonderful family, and myself for the ordeal of 13 trips to surgery for skin grafts. The military doctors came to help. The Navy donated skin for the skin grafts. There were donations of blood. Many people offered supplies and help. The autoclaves ran constantly - we used sterile technique for everything, including bedding changes.

Valerie seemed to be doing beautifully. With the help of a bedside teacher, she hoped to graduate from eighth grade. My family and I were invited.

But instead, one day she became unconscious. Her family brought her four-year-old brother whom she adored, hoping to arouse her. But it did not happen. About 2:00 one day, she opened her beautiful blue eyes, smiled, and she was gone. It was decided her kidneys had stopped functioning. Instead of going to her graduation, we went to her funeral Requiem Mass.

When the new school opened, Father Taylor and I were invited as guests.

Contributed to olafire.com by Martha Taylor Murphy, daughter of Dorothy Taylor