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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958
Joseph V. Murray, dead at 88, fought one of the city's saddest fires (From the Chicago Sun Times)
Chicago 04/04/2016, 11:35pm>

Maureen O'Donnell

Joe Murray
Joe Murray, who rose to be a Chicago Fire Department battalion chief, saved children's lives at the 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels school.
When the alarm sounded to fight a blaze at Chicago’s Our Lady of Angels School, Joe Murray felt dread.

It was his old grade school. He knew its hallways, stairs and classrooms as well as he knew the inside of his home.

The firefighter saw mushrooming smoke as he neared the building at Iowa and Avers. He knew things were very bad.

The 1958 fire killed 92 children and three nuns. Grief settled on Humboldt Park like heavy snow. It seemed that every block had victims who never got a chance to grow up.

John Raymond and others who made it out of the school consider Joe Murray a hero.

“He pulled out kids as fast as he could,” said Raymond, who was about 11 at the time. “At first, he was grabbing them and putting them behind him, so they could climb down the ladder.”

But when the heat began to build, Mr. Murray knew a “flashover” was coming. That’s when everything in a room ignites.

“He started grabbing them, and he said most of the times he grabbed the boys because he could see the white shirts, reaching in and throwing them down to the ground,” Raymond said.

“Some of the firefighters were trying to catch them with nets,” he said. “But there were just too many of them.”

Joe Murray as a young firefighter
Joe Murray as a young firefighter (Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Angels School fire website)

Mr. Murray’s super-human efforts, which were honored in 2008 by survivors, are described on a website dedicated to the memory of the Our Lady of Angels fire. He “climbed a ladder to one of room 210’s windows and began pulling children out. It was difficult to get them out, though, because they were so tightly packed at the windows. He then climbed inside the room and continued to shove children out onto the ladder.

“Fire had been pouring in through the transoms above the doors and was now burning all across the ceiling, dropping lower and lower in the room.

“Suddenly, he could sense that the room was nearing flashover and headed back out the window. On his way out, he grabbed two children next to the window and tossed them out ahead of him. He felt badly about that, but it was their only chance to live.

“Just as he got out onto the ladder, the room flashed over, sending flames shooting out all the windows with a roar.”

Mr. Murray, 88, who died on March 24, is buried at Queen of Heaven Cemetery within 100 feet of the section where many Our Lady of Angels victims were laid to rest.

“When my mom died, that’s the area they chose,” said their daughter, Mary Gersch Marchlewski.

Joe and Rosella Murray on their wedding day

Mr. Murray’s life was full, happy and accomplished. He had 11 children with his wife, Rosella, whom he loved from the time he first saw her at a roller rink in 1947.

He enjoyed picnics, vacationing in Hayward, Wisconsin, scratching the ears of a series of Murray family Airedale terriers and making his kids pizzas in rectangular pans he crafted himself with the skills learned at a second job as a sheet-metal worker.

He retired as battalion chief of Battalion No. 11 after a nearly 40-year-career in which he was honored several times for heroism.

But the school conflagration left him with a mark as real as a burn scar.

Joe and Rosella Murray and family (family photo)
Joe and Rosella Murray and family (Family photo)

“He had constant nightmares after that, terrible nightmares” Marchlewski said. “Every year at the anniversary [of the fire], the nightmares would come back.”

The cause of the fire was never solved. The book “To Sleep with the Angels” said that a boy at the school confessed to setting the blaze but was never prosecuted. The inferno horrified the nation and led to sweeping changes in school design, construction materials and safety codes. Sprinklers, fire doors and fire drills became the norm.

Young Joe came from a firefighting family. His father was a division marshal. He liked visiting Riverview amusement park at Belmont and Western. He graduated from St. Philip’s High School.

Joe and Rosella Murray believed that family suppers were important. When they were ready to eat, the children knew it was time to “get out of the pool, stop doing your homework, stop playing board games,” Marchlewski said, “and sit down to dinner.”

Screw Removed From Head

In 1963, he aided a 2-year-old girl who drove a half-inch screw into her head when she fell on a radiator handle. “He sent a guy down the block to the hardware store to get a fine saw blade” to free her, Marchlewski said. The girl recovered after surgery. “We, to this day, wonder how she’s doing,” she said.

Joe Murray, Chicago firefighter (family photo)
Joe Murray, Chicago firefighter (Family photo)

In 1966, he was honored for extricating a firefighter from the debris of a roof collapse that trapped him near flames.

Joe and Rosella Murray / Family Photo
Joe and Rosella Murray (Family Photo)

In the mid-1980s, Marchlewski said, Mr. Murray grew concerned about a chief who didn’t show up for work at the firehouse. When Mr. Murray and firefighters did a check at his home, they rescued him from carbon-monoxide poisoning.

The Our Lady of Angels fire made him determined to save lives at all the fires that followed, Marchlewski said.

“He was a worker — underline worker,” said Bill Kugelman, a former fire battalion chief and union official. “He’d have to be dying to leave a fire.”

Mr. Murray had a knack for fixing cars. Outside his March 29 wake at Cooney Funeral Home in Park Ridge, his children parked one of his favorites, a 1959 white Ford pickup truck.

He is also survived by his other daughters, Susan, Kathleen, Jayne, Patti Jo and Charlene; sons Michael, Timothy and James; 39 grandchildren; and 30 great-grandchildren. His wife and two sons, Joe and John, died before him. Mr. Murray was buried in his Knights of Columbus tuxedo.