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

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Testimony of Lt. Drew Brown

December 1958


recalled as a witness, having been previously duly sworn, was further examined in chief by Coroner McCarron and testified as follows:

Q. You consider your self still sworn in?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Is there any report that you can give this jury with reference to any later findings that you may have or your opinion or the opinion of your department with reference to this tragedy?

A. First, I want to state that something new has been tried here in fire investigation that has proved particularly good.

This case, needless to say, we assembled and used whatever concentration of personnel and investigative power that we could get together. Fire Commissioner Quinn assigned his Arson Detail to work with the Police Arson Detail. We have been working together for twenty years. Couldn't have had better co-operation or public feeling.

The same goes for Captain Penzin, the Twenty-eighth District detectives - everyone has gotten together on this thing and will be together on it until we do come to some conclusion of a definite nature.

As far as anything now, we have processed six hundred, almost seven hundred youngsters by taking statements from each one. This was done under the supervision of Lieutenant Jim Kehoe, of the Fire Department Arson Squad, and Chief Daley, and Bailey, Chief Bob O'Brien, and Chief Francis Murphy - everyone has been most co-operative. When we get through here, we shall have a meeting to discuss what has been accomplished.

About thirteen hundred youngsters have been talked to to try to find the answer. We did find out that there definitely had been smoke in the stair-well, and we definitely found out that there was some delay in getting this alarm.

We have submitted every bit of physical evidence available at the scene to the Police Crime Laboratory. Photos have been taken. We have revisited the seen a score of times. We have discussed this thing twenty-four hours a day, nearly, with everyone we could talk to. We have talked to adults in the neighborhood, and - status quo on the whole thing.

We do not know yet whether it was arson; although the evidence, I think everyone will agree, the balance of the evidence must indicate that it was accidental. Everyone has been together on this, the gentlemen of the jury, the mothers and fathers of the youngsters that perished, the poor nuns of the tragedy - we bothered them day after day at the convent, and they were wonderful, they were literally empowered, God-empowered, because we know the extent of their tragedy. They are innocent people; they are timid people; they are God-loving, and they have been stunned just as everyone has been.

I think that no other investigation in the world probably has received as much whole-hearted co-operation. There has been no question of rank. The Commissioner, the chiefs - everyone has been just like a patrolman in the Fire Department or a fireman in the Fire Department. Everyone has been wonderful. And all that I can say while I am sitting here - that this is not the end of this. We are still delving into this. I just talked to Chief Murphy. And at the help of the Christian School, where the youngsters are now attending, we have uncovered a boy who definitely states that he saw two youngsters in the stair-well smoking. Now, that is the first time that we have come across anyone that puts them right in that stairwell; and they were lighting matches. And Sergeant Jim Kehoe, of the Police Department, who is detailed with the Fire Department Arson Detail has that information; and we are going to work on it and we are going to follow it through.

Mr. McCarron - and his deputies - you know how he has conducted this on a dignified basis -- I want to say this, in substance - that everyone has worked tirelessly; and we are sure, before we are through, that we are going to find the answer here. If there are any questions from the jurors, I shall certainly try to answer them.

EXAMINATION of Sergeant Drew Brown

by Mr. Wyatt Jacobs.

Q. My name is Wyatt Jacobs. I am attorney for the Catholic Bishop. You say you found some combustible material in this stair-well. Tell us what it was.

A. We found some papers that children had written; we found newspapers that dated back to October 20; we found card-board boxes down there. And some materials, due to the water seepage and the tremendous amount of water that they had poured in there, and also due to the burning of the lathes - and the material in that stair-well, much of it had disintegrated and had been washed apart. But we do have, and the Police Crime Laboratory was given samples or pieces - whatever was available - we brought them out intact, enough to be brought for examination.

Q. How much material did you find in these various categories?

A. As I stated, the material that was available for analysis, that is, something that had not been about so high and so long (indicating) filled with this material.

Q. Could you tell us what the dimensions of the box were?

A. I couldn't tell you that - just approximately.

Q. About.

A. About this long and about this high (indicating).

Q. Did you find in your investigation that there had been some test made in this stair-well subsequent to the fire; did you take some newspapers for the purpose of determining the depth of the fire?

A. I am not sure that I understand that.

Q. Were any tests made, after this fire, in that stair-well, by the Fire Department?

A. Were any tests made?

Q. Yes.

A. What type?

Q. Newspapers.

A. I beg your pardon?

Q. Was there any fire set in that stair-well subsequent to this fire?

A. Fire set in the stair-well?

Q. Yes, since December 1 - using newspapers.

A. I haven't seen any.

Q. You have not found anything, in connection with your investigation?

A. I had seen no one setting any fires in stairwells.

Q. I did not ask you that. I asked you whether you had found any such facts as a result of your investigation?

A. I had heard nothing about them.

Q. Now, did you find some newspapers?

A. A stack about so high (indicating), available to be taken out, in good condition - just the edges scorched, about so high (indicating).

Q. About how high?

A. I beg your pardon?

Q. About how high?

A. About eight inches high. They were eight-by-ten sheets of paper.

Q. Were they tied together?

A. No, they weren't. They were stacked in a corner.

Q. But only the edges were scorched, were they?

A. In these oases, yes, sir.

Q. So you found some newspapers -- how many?

A. You mean each leaf or each entire paper?

Q. About how many did you find?

A. I couldn't numerically describe how many.

Q. Three or how many did you find.

A. I don't know whether you mean complete papers or layers of paper. When you speak of a paper, some have ten -

Q. I mean newspapers.

A. I mean some papers have about ten sections - like the Sunday Tribune - that would be considered one newspaper - Oh! it is about sections: am I right?

Q. All right. How many papers did you find?

A. Well, I simply can state that I found a pile. I didn't count them.

Q. All right. How high was this pile?

A. I stated about eight Inches high that were piled together. They were scattered all over that stair-well. Some were underneath these stairs that went up to the first floor; some were back in the boiler-room; some were at the top of the stair-well.

Q. These newspapers were scattered all over the stair-well?

A. That's right; we found them in all portions of the stair-well.

Q. To what degree were they burning?

A. The more I studied, from the damage -- some were not burned completely; but they bore some resemblance to a newspaper than anything else: that is why we called them newspapers.

Q. In what area would you say that they were distributed over, in what distance?

A. I saw them in the entire part of the stairwell.

Q. When did you see those?

A. I saw them as soon as we were able to get into that area, after the fire -- which was the evening of the fire, possibly about seven o'clock.

Q. It was after six o'clock?

A. I believe so.

Q. Was the water down there then?

A. Well, there was a good-deal of water and debris.

Q. How much?

A. Well, let's say two inches.

Q. Now, you mentioned something about some cardboard down there: how much of that was found?

A. We found remains of what appeared to be about three card-board boxes.

Q. Where was that located?

A. That one particular box was right under the window where the fire appeared to have it's start - it was filled with whiskey bottles.

Q. Empty?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Were they empty?

A. I beg your pardon.

Q. Were they empty?

A. Were they empty, you say?

Q. Yes.

A. (There was no answer.)

MR. MARKS: Will you answer the question?

DEPUTY CORONER DORE: Were the bottles empty?

THE WITNESS: A. The bottles were broken, Counsel I didn't hear the request.

THE CORONER: Are there any further questions?

MR. JACOBS: Yes, I should like to.

Q. This material you found In the area, the newspapers, was that scattered around in such a manner that it could have been washed down by the extinguishing of the fire?

THE WITNESS: A. I doubt it, because much of it was In an area that appeared not to be connected with the heavy water.

It could have been washed down; yet you don't think it could have been washed down from the second floor.

Q. I am not sure. But were these newspapers entirely consumed by the fire, or were they just ash, or were some of them still not burned?

A. Host of them were in bad condition. And as I say, we did recover some that we know we could recognize. The ones that were consumed, we did not recognize, but we did recover some that were recognizable as newspapers.

Q. You said someone told you something about some boys smoking down there.

A. He didn't even have the name at the moment; but I understand that the name is "The Christian School." That is on his statement.

Q, Whose statement?

A. That is what I am trying to explain - each dated-each Arson Detail, the Police, and the Fire Department.

Q. I am not talking about that. I am talking about the boy who has some information -- or some boys. Who is that?

A. Chief Frank Murphy, he has been in the case co-operating with us all the time.

Q. He has the names of two boys that were smoking in the "wall"?

A. He doesn't have the names just as yet.

Q. This is just a rumor, is it, Mr. Brown?

A. I have every faith in lord. Murphy's ability to have information; and I believe when he says that, that is what it is.

Q, Yon tell us now that Mr. Murphy does not know who the boys are?

A. Yes.

Q. He does not know who gave him the information?

A. I can't say who gave him the information. Perhaps if you ask him, he will tell you.

MR. JACOB: Maybe the Coroner will ask him.

THE CORONER: And as I understand --

MR. JACOBS: May I ask a couple more questions, Mr.Coroner?

THE CORONER: Yes; go ahead.

MR. JACOBS: Did you find any evidence that there were any matches in the well?

A. I didn't find any matches, no.

Q, And when did you say that this supposed lighting of matches took place?

A. I said that he may find. That information relative to this very, very elementary. I simply know that this information was made available, and we are checking it out now, Counsel.

Q. Now, Sergeant Brown, you also made a statement that there was a delay. Now, is that a delay in the discovery of the fire, or a delay in reporting that fire?

A. We believe there may have been an element of each.

Q. On what basis do you make this assumption that you say you believe, what facts do you have that have not been disclosed here, if any?

A. None that have not been disclosed here. I think the statements of the fire officials and the witnesses indicate that there may have been a delay. Mr. Raymond stated it was twenty after; he looked at his watch; he knew it was twenty after. We know the fire-alarm was struck at 2:42; but you have heard the testimony as well as I have, and I am basing my conclusion on that as much as anything.

Q. Well, that is only on what yon have heard here that you are basing your assumption that there was some delay in reporting this?

A. No. it was after we went in, it indicated that there was a delayed alarm.

Q. What facts do you have for that statement?

A. As I stated, the time element that was involved, it appears that the fire some time because of the heat.

Q. That would have been a matter of time7

A. That is what I stated, that there might have been an element of each.

Q. On what do you base your assumption that there was a delayed report?

A. The evidence that has been given here.

Q. And would indicate that?

A. Would indicate that.

Q. You have nothing else?

A. But an opinion I have arrived at because of experience in other fires and experience that I have had.

Q. Is it not a fact that, now, that the Crime Laboratory has nothing to indicate that there was unusual combustible material in the stair-well?

A. I don't know how you would arrive at the word, or --

Q. Do you know of any material that is not combustible?

A. I know that fires are set with -- most fires are set with matches and paper.

Q. Yon do not know of any material that IF not combustible?

A. I don't.

Q, So that it is a relative terra; is it not'

A. Yes.

Q, And you have not found In your Investigation anything that is unusually combustible?

A. Yes, I say most fires are started by paper.

Q. You used this word arson carelessly. Do you have any evidence at all?

A. Of what?

Q. Of arson.

A. I stated that this is an undetermined fire, as far as we are concerned.

Q. Mr. Brown, the question is a simple one. Do you have any evidence at all of any natural description?

A. I state that it is undetermined.

Q. Then you do not have any evidence that it was arson?

A. That is correct; we hare always said that, yes, sir.

MR. MARKS: Q. You are not ruling out arson at this time?

A. No, sir, Mr. Counsel.

MR. JACOBS: I should like to explore this a little further, the whiskey bottles..

Q. Could you describe that a little more?

THE WITNESS: A. It was almost disintegrated when we found it. It was at the bottom of some rubble. It appeared to be a card-board box. I say it was a loss because it wasn't In complete re-constructible shape; but it appeared to be about - oh - two feet long and possibly six to eight Inches high.

Q. How many were In there?

A. Well, it was damaged, it was broken by the fire, the tops were all-broken; but we did find three tops that were Identifiable as Christmas-type package that was offered by "Old Fitzgerald," 1


Q. You say that was In the stair-well?

A. That was right underneath the window where the charred base-board Indicated that there was a good deal of fire.

Q. Was there anything in the bottles at all?

A. They were broken.

Q. Could you tell us how many?

A. I stated that three tops were found. We found three tops; and as to the bottoms and the major part of the bottles, we couldn't - -they were broken.

Q. Well, would that be a sort of a decanter that might be used as a candle holder?

A. As a candle holder?

Q. Yes. I know the type you mean. This was a little wire around the collar of the bottle.

Q. Did you find any whiskey bottles, or did you find these three tops that you referred to?

A. Well, I assume. Of course, I can't split a question with you because I am not a bottle expert, and I am not a whiskey expert, and I am not qualified to fill you in on how many bottles there were; but to the best of my knowledge I found three tops of those bottles themselves were broken.

Q. Where did you find them?

A. We found them at that first day that we searched as much as we could over that debris and under that stair-well. At the bottom of this debris we found the bottles and the card-board.

Q. Was it your conclusion that the fire originated underneath the window; is that correct?

A. I say that is as good as any, as, being a police officer in this case, I certainly can not qualify myself as a fireman; but I think they had the answer, that it may have started there.

Q. Have you received Indications to the effect that it may have started any place other than the stair-well?

A. No, it is very difficult to get any information as to what happened down there.

Q. Have you an opinion as to where the fire started?

A. There could be.

Q. Have you heard any different opinion on where the fire started?

A. Yes, sir, I have.

Q. In Where?

A. Well, Mr. Downes, the Fire Attorney felt that it may have started under the stair-well, under the window.

THE CORONER: Are there any further questions?

MR. JACOBS: No further questions.