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

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St. Anne's Hospital Fire Remembrance

By Elizabeth Quinn

On December 1, 1958, I was working in the Operating Room at St. Anne's Hospital. Back then, the Operating Room was the epicenter of a hospital where today, the Emergency Room fills that role. I had just graduated from St. Anne's Hospital School of Nursing in August of '58 and taken my State Board examination. Back then, exams were taken on paper in long hand, so took several months to receive the results.

It was close to end of shift, about 2:45 to 3:00 p.m. when the switchboard operator called the Operating Room stating a bakery truck had just driven up the driveway and two men carried in a young girl, screaming and crying, and laid her down on a couch in the lobby. The men immediately ran back to the truck, hollering to the switchboard operator that they “were going back for more.” Immediately, my Supervisor told me to go down and evaluate the situation.

I arrived in the main lobby which by now smelled of smoke. The young girl was on the couch still screaming and crying, with the switchboard operator trying to console her. I began to try to find out her name and what had happened while trying to evaluate her physical condition. The girl looked to be around 11 or 12 years old and was hysterically calling out for her mother. She was not answering any of our questions or responding to us. We later learned the girl was deaf and had lost her hearing aid in her attempt to escape the fire. She had not heard anything we had been saying to her. From the smell of smoke, the girl's hysteria, and her continued calling out to her mother, we thought there had possibly been a home fire. We very quickly had the girl transported to the Emergency Room.

Within minutes of my arrival in the lobby, cars, trucks, ambulances, all began arriving with multiple victims. As you might imagine, the situation rapidly became more emotional as word began to circulate that this was a grammar school fire and there were many more victims on their way to the hospital. How many? We had no idea. The hospital quickly declared a disaster and went into our disaster plan.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, parents, family members, clergy were coming into the hospital looking for their children or family members. They were frightened, hysterical, and fearing the worst. Any cart or wheel chair bearing a child, the parents would run up to, grab the child while calling their child's name and crying. When they realized this was not their child, they immediately ran to the next cart, hoping against hope, they would find their child alive.

Never before had the hospital received so many critical patients at one time. All departments were over stressed yet did the best they possibly could to give care. Doctors, Nurses, and auxiliary staff that heard about the enormity of the fire, were arriving throughout the evening and days ahead, to do whatever they could to help. On the day of the fire, no one even thought about going home.

About two days later, a classmate of mine and myself were told to get ready, we were being flown to an Army Hospital in Texas to learn a brand new treatment for burns that the Army was using, Open Air Treatment. Several hours later, we were told we would not be going, that instead, a team of Army Doctors would be flown in from Texas to train a group of us in the new technique. The next day the Doctors arrived, trained us, and we began going from patient to patient, using the new technique.

For the next few weeks, I was assigned to work in what had been our surgical Recovery Room and was now turned into the Critical Care unit holding 6-8 of the worst burn cases. We would work 5-6 hour shifts, then several of us would go over to the Nursing School Dormitory and sleep for 5-6 hours, then start over again. When I finally got to go home, just before Christmas, my parents gave me the letter that had come stating that I had passed my State Board Examination and become a registered Nurse on Dec. 1, 1958!

While many lives were lost and much suffering endured due to this tragedy, thousands of lives have been saved due to the lessons learned and changes brought about from this event. Many meetings were held with Police and Fire Departments, City Officials, Doctors, Nurses and Hospital representatives from all over Chicago & surrounding areas. Ultimately, a Disaster Plan was put into place, the foundation for disaster planning and the first all inclusive plan for all First Responders and Hospitals, Police and Fire Departments. The Disaster Plan has been, And continues to be, responsible for saving many lives.

Based to a great extent on lessons learned from this tragedy, we will not have the confusion, lack of communication or overburdening of any one facility in the future. It was a watershed event. We now realize major catastrophes can and do happen so we have developed facilities and plans to deal with these events.

The OLA fire had a lasting effect on my career from beginning to end. I went on and specialized in Emergency and Trauma Nursing using the skills I learned until I retired. This past December 1 [2015], our daughter and son-in-law saw the Chicago Tribune digital edition telling of the anniversary of the OLA fire. It included a picture of me taking care of a patient on a Stryker Frame in the Critical Care Ward. A framed copy of that picture now sits on our mantel. This was truly an event that impacted my life and I will never forget.

Elizabeth Ann Garvey Quinn
February 19, 2016