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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958
OLA Fire Period News Articles
(These stories have been reproduced as accurately as possible from the original news reports, including original errors)
90 Die In School Fire (12/1/58)
74 Hurt, Blast Traps Scores (12/1/58)
Tough Chicago Police Weep At The Tragic, Tiny Bundles (12/1/58)
Tom Feared Sight Of Death's Mask (12/1/58)
Margaret Was a Little Girl Who Didn't Like to Be Sick (12/1/58)
Joe Wasn't Hurt, He Saw Only Horror (12/1/58)
Sobbing Nun Tells of Horror In School Fire (12/1/58)
Parish Families Seek Children (12/1/58)
Man, 74, Stricken Helping Children (12/1/58)
F.B.I. Ready to Assist Chicago Fire Inquire (12/1/58)
Panic Grips Classrooms; Confusion Increases Toll (12/1/58)
Everybody was Jumping (12/1/58)
List of Identified Dead In Chicago School Fire (12/1/58)
Fire Gong Tolled A Deadly Message (12/1/58)
Frantic Dad Tells Fire Rescue Role (12/1/58)
85 Youngsters Still Hospitalized; Blaze 3rd Worst In 100 Years (12/2/58)
Smoldering School Ruins Like A Cavern Of Death (12/2/58)
87 Children, 3 Nuns Die in School Fire (12/2/58)
Probers of Fire Ask: Why? (12/2/58)
Schoolboy Smoking Cigaret Might Have Touched Off Fire (12/2/58)
One Family's Story (12/2/58)
Throng Just Waits, Looks (12/2/58)
The Morgue (12/2/58)
School Fire Chicago's Worst in 55 Years (12/2/58)
“I'll Remember It to My Dying Day,” Says Fireman (12/2/58)
Chronology Shows Speed of Disaster (12/2/58)
Girl Recalls Burning Backs Of Classmates (12/2/58)
Chicago Presses Search for Clues to Fire At School (12/2/58)
'I Won't Give Up Hope,' Says Father (12/2/58)
Boy Who Jumped Tells of Tragedy (12/2/58)
Pope John Wires Condolences to Bereaved Kin (12/2/58)
Arson Squad to Probe Fire in School Last Year (12/2/58)
“It's Just Too Much,” Laments Archbishop (12/2/58)
Hospitals Work Around Clock to Relieve Injured (12/2/58)
Other School Tragedies (12/2/58)
Moscow Says School Fire No Accident (12/2/58)
Memories of Horror Rack School Janitor (12/2/58)
How Fireman Feels Carrying Out Victims (12/3/58)
Third Worst In Nation (12/3/58)
Priests Try Vainly To Comfort Bereaved Relatives And Parents (12/3/58)
Struggle to Save Fire Survivors Continues (12/3/58)
Gigantic IFs Jolt Probers Digging Into Fire Mystery (12/3/58)
Fire Leads to School Checkups (12/3/58)
Rites Held for Nuns Killed in School Fire (12/4/58)
10,000 Mourners at Funeral Of Three Nuns Killed in Fire (12/4/58)
Mass Offered for 28 Small Victims of Fire (12/5/58)
Fire Victim's Souls Commended to God (12/5/58)
91st Chicago Victim Of School Fire Dies (12/6/58)
500 Children Face Questioning In School Fire (12/6/58)
Bereaved Families Mourn in Chicago (12/7/58)
9-Year-Old Boy Dies, Raises Chicago School Fire Toll to 92 (12/8/58)
Boy Becomes 92d Victim of Chicago Fire (12/8/58)
School Fire Horror Probed (12/11/58)
Chicago School Afire Long Before 1st Alarm (12/11/58)
Terror, Torment Related by School Fire Victims (12/13/58)
Girl Fire Victim, 9, Wonders Why Cards Have Stopped Coming (12/14/58)
Fire. Thirty-Eight O Eight Iowa...The Alarm Was Desperate, the Tragedy Incredible! (12/15/58)
Nightmare in the News (12/15/58)
Disasters - The Chicago School Fire (12/15/58)
How Safe Are The Schools (12/15/58)
Fire Hazards Found At 2 City Schools
Two Schools To Be Closed As Fire Risks
Texas School Tragedy Of 294 Dead Recalled
$50,000? So What?
Erect Fireproof School Building (11/30/59)
City Cleared As Defendant In School Fire (7/19/60)
New School Open (9/60)
Considered prime suspect in Chicago blaze (1/16/1962)
Boy Admits Fire Fatal To 95 (1/16/62)
Judge Rips Lie Tester On Boy's Story Of Fire (1/16/1966)
Cicero Won't Let Police Talk to Youth (1/16/1962)
Lad Cleared in School Fire (3/13/62)
Memories stay forever - Our Lady of Angels fire survivor (11/83)
'Born fireman' wanted to be part of the action (6/1/2003)
24 in One Class Die at Desks - Closing Bell 18 Minutes Away
Special to the New York Times
Chicago, Dec 1 - A fast-spreading fire today killed at least eighty-seven Chicago school children and three nuns.
The disaster occurred at Our Lady of the Angels Roman Catholic Parochial School at 3808 West Iowa Street, eighteen minutes before the bell that would have closed the school day. About 1,515 grade-school and 120 kindergarten children were attending classes.
At least 100 other children were taken to seven hospitals where the condition of many was listed as critical. It was feared the death toil would continue to mount.
Many children had leaped from windows in panic.
Priests of the parish dashed from the church and joined teachers in rescue efforts.
Two Buildings Occupied
It was believed that nuns, lay teachers, priests, janitors and passers-by had rescued more than 1,000 of the children.
The children occupied two buildings, which made up the school facilities of Our Lady of the Angels parish.
The fire occurred at 2:42 P.M. in the older two-story brick building.
Firemen who fought their way into a classroom found twenty-four children sitting dead at their desks. Books and homework assignments for tomorrow were stacked neatly before the children.
Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn said that the boiler room of the building appeared to be intact. An earlier report said that an explosion had occurred there.
Blaze in Stairwell
Heavy black smudges were found on the stairwell leading from the room, Mr. Quinn said. He reported that the fire might have started from and oil type of blaze in the stairwell. He said he was mystified as to how the fire had spread so rapidly.
City officials, at the direction of Mayer Richard J. Daley, immediately opened what was promised to be “one of the greatest fire investigations in the city's history.”
Mr. Quinn said the tragedy might have been caused by a “touch-off.” Touch-off is the firemen's word for arson.
Chicago schools have been targets of anonymous phone callers who reported that bombs had been planted in buildings. Schools have been evacuated for hours and classes have been canceled while firemen searched the premises.
Drew Brown, head of the Police Arson Squad, said that the fire appeared to have started in a corridor below the first floor in a corner of the building.
He said that the rubbish might have been left there and could have been the source of the flames. At 8:30 P.M. he said that no evidence of arson had been found.
The city's Building Commissioner, George L. Ramsey, said after a preliminary inspection of the building that he had found six exits from the second floor of the building. He said that they and the width of the corridors were adequate for escape.
Mrs. Barbara Glowacki, owner of a grocery story less than a block north of the school, added to the mystery of the fire's origin. She told investigators that twenty minutes before she heard the fire engines a strange man entered her store and asked if she had a public telephone.
Police Hunt Man
She said she did not. She quoted him as saying, calmly, “I was going to report that the school's on fire.”
He then walked out, Mrs. Glowacki said. The police are searching for the man.
The police said they found a thirty-gallon metal can, sealed at both ends, at the foot of the basement stairway where the fire was believed to have started. It was taken to the Police Crime Laboratory for examination.
Pupils of the school, including two boys detailed to empty waste baskets in the larger building's boiler room, told of hearing strange sounds from the building's radiators just before the flames raced through the building.
A janitor of the school ran through the halls seconds later, shouting, “Call the Fire Department.”
Jump in Panic
Flames spread so rapidly that scores of children had been killed, many at their desks, or had leaped from windows before firemen arrived. Others were trampled or crushed by their companions in a panic dash for safety.
Panic raged though the school and in the streets adjacent. Scores of parents rushed to the scene, where they saw billowing smoke and towering sheets of flames swirling from the building in which their children were trapped or too frightened to escape.
So rapid was the spread of the flames that carefully rehearsed fire-drill procedures were forgotten by many of the children.
Within minutes, hundreds of parents pressed frantically against the police and fire lines in an attempt to enter the school to find their children.
Mothers Plead to Enter
Hysterical mothers raced futilely up and down the safety lines pleading to be permitted to enter the building.
The neighborhood of the school is a quiet residential section made up chiefly of single family frame houses and two-family buildings. Most of the residents are second and third-generation Chicagoans of Italian, Irish and German extraction. The neighborhood is heavily populated by Roman Catholics.
It was a typical, calm, early winter day with the sun shining and the temperatures in the upper twenties.
Some of the others of the younger pupils had already donned coats to go to the school yard to meet their children.
Persons living in the vicinity of the school became aware of the mishap when the sounds of school letting out were strangely different. Instead of happy shouts and laughter they heard young voices screaming in terror.
Smoke in Classrooms
Within minutes smoke swirled through the classrooms and flames licked through the stairways.
Without heeding their teachers children began to open and leap through windows on the first, second and third floors. Those on the lower floors managed to flee.
The children dropping from the upper floors lay still where the fell or crawled in pain away from the burning building.
Others huddled in panic in their rooms or jammed the corridors, unheeding the efforts of their teachers to organize them for an orderly evacuation.
Later when firemen were able to enter the building they found children's bodies, some burned so badly that identification was difficult or impossible.
They lay in groups or sprawling singly down the corridors and on the stairways.
Among the earliest to arrive at the scene was Chicago's recently appointed Archbishop Albert Meyer. The Archbishop of the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the nation stood with tears coursing his cheeks. Mayor Daley stood beside him.
Firemen arrived at the scene in time to help hundreds of children down the ladders. Others had found their way to the school fire escapes and had assisted classmates to safety.
In some instances firemen fought their way against fumes and smoke into classrooms and found groups of children still alive.
The firemen gave their first attention to the living. Then came the task of gathering the bodies of others.
As the firemen carried the bodies out of the badly damaged building parents rushed in groups, now in the direction and now in that, seeking to learn if the firemen's burdens were their own children.
Twenty nuns of the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and nine lay women teachers made up the faculty.
The dead nuns were identified as Sister Mary Seraphica, Sister Mary Canice and Sister Mary Claire Teresa.
The principal of the school is Sister Mary St. Florence. The pastor of Our Lady of the Angels is the Right Rev. Joseph F. Cassen (sic).
The structure was built in 1910. Originally it had classrooms on its second floor and a church on the first floor.
In 1939, a new church was built for the Our Lady of the Angels parish, of which the school is part. The structure was then given over entirely to classrooms. It was remodeled in 1951. it retained its high ceilings and extensive wood trim.
Adjacent to the ill-fated building was another school building. It escaped the fire. It had been constructed within the last five years on the site occupied by the parish church and the older school building at 3808 West Iowa Street on Chicago's West Side. The buildings were constructed of brick.
The victims of the fire were children between 8 and 14 years of age.
The building that burned had only one outside fire escape. It was at the rear and consisted of a conventional iron stairway with a railing.
A pupil reported that the children and their teachers had been unable to open the door to the stairway from the inside. A priest reportedly climbed the stairway to open the door from the outside.
Fire Department officials said that the exits from the second floor consisted of six stairways in addition to the fire escape and that these were regarded as adequate by safety inspectors.
The ceilings were of wood and plaster. No violations were found, officials said, in an inspection of the building last October.