OLAFire Logo
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)
85 Youngsters Still Hospitalized; Blaze 3rd Worst In 100 Years
CHICAGO, Dec. 2 - (AP) - Grim investigators today shook off the shock of Chicago's worst school fire and strove to find the answer to this question.
“How did it happen and why?”.
The fire that flashed through Our Lady of the Angels School Monday shortly before closing time cost 90 lives - 87 children and three nuns.
More than 85 youngsters remained in hospitals
It was Chicago's most disastrous blaze since the Iroquois Theater holocaust in 1903 and the third worst school fire in the nation in 100 years.
Like Blowtorch
The flames shot up in the two story brick building like fire from a blowtorch. Heat and smoke trapped the victims on the upper floor of the north wing of the U-shaped structure.
Twenty-four bodies were found in one room. Most of them were jammed near windows. Firemen, sickened by the spectacle, said a few of the children were still at their desks, apparently paralyzed by fear and panic.
Others leaped from windows
The little survivors suffered from burns, bones broken in falls and the shock of the horror they beheld.
Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn considered the possibility of arson. That possibility was raised by the swift spread of the blaze.
“It was the worst thing I have ever seen or ever will see,” he said.
30-Gallon Can Found
Quinn also said the black smoke indicated an oil-type fire.
The fire originated in the northeast corner of the school at 3808 W. Iowa St. on the Northwest Side. Investigators pinpointed the placeof origin below the street level.
A 30-gallon can was found in a stairwell in that section of the structure. It was taken to the police crime laboratory for careful examination.
Another possibility was that the fire sprang up in the waste paper in the basement near that corner of the building.
Daniel O'Shea, 12, a pupil who carried the waste paper to the basement a few minutes before the fire started was questioned by police seeking to determine the cause of the disaster.
Dumped Paper
The boy said he left his seventh grade room with a basket of paper about 10 minutes before the fire began. He added that he dumped the paper in the container to be burned later by the janitor.
Sgt. Drew Brown, head of the police arson squat, said the waste paper was dumped in the boiler room about 15 feet from the stairwell where the fire was believed to have started.
One theory was that a cigarette may have been discarded in the refuse.
Sgt. Brown found black smudges on the lower walls of the stairwell that indicated an oil-like substance had burned there.
He stated that no evidence of a touchoff had been found thus far.
Pope John XXIII send to the Chicago Archdiocese a telegram of profound sorrow over the disaster in the Roman Catholic school.
Just 18 minutes was the difference between life and death for the 1,300 students and black-robed teachers in the school. The first box alarm was turned in at 2:42 p.m. The school let out at 3 p.m.
Wild Inferno
Within minutes the building turned into a wild, screaming inferno. Smoke and heat filled staircases and second-floor corridors so fast that normal exits were impassable.
“We are trapped. We are trapped,” nuns screamed from the windows as they huddled with groups of pupils.
Many children panicked, stampeded to window. Some leaped to death on sidewalks below.
“Nothing killed those kids but heat and smoke,” Quinn said. “They just couldn't get out into the corridor to go downstairs.”
Nearly all the eighth-grader class in two upper-floor classrooms perished.
Screams of children trapped on upper floors drifted down to hundreds of horrified spectators and hysterical parents.
Firemen raised ladders and brought down dozens of pupils. Priests, on the scene even before the fire fighters, led out others.
Nuns Save Many
Nuns, with disregard for their own safety, rolled some pupils down staircases. Children ducked to the floor, seeking cool and fresh air, and clawed out. Others groped their way to freedom by grasping hands and beltbuckles of classmates and filing out the smoke-filled structure.
For some there was no rescue, however.
“God, we tried. God, how we tried,” sobbed one fireman. “But we couldn't move fast enough. No one could live in that fire.”
As the bodies were brought down in the eerie, hazy light, parents pushed against police lines, crying. “Where are our children? Where are our children?”.
The dead were placed in a courtyard where only a few hours before the children had been laughing and playing.
The injured were taken to seven nearby West Side hospitals. Twenty-two victims died en route to hospitals or soon after arrival. Sixty-eight bodies were sent directly to the morgue where parents and relatives gathered for the dreaded identification ordeal.
Of the dead 53 were girls and 34 boys. The heroic nuns accounted for the other three.
40 Years Old
The U-shaped school as 3808 Iowa St. was built some 40 years ago. It was remodeled about five years ago. Fire officials said the school was checked last October and no violations were found. Exits were adequate, they said, and the ceilings were of wood lath and plaster. There were no false ceilings. The heating plant is fueled by oil.
A single fire escape, with exits from the first and second fllors, was in the center of the read, or east side of the building - the bottom of the U which joined the wings.
As news of the impending disaster spread through the low-income neighborhood, hundreds rushed to the scene. Grief-stricken parents began crashing through police cordons as the dead were removed. Several people fainted in the surging mass of humanity.
Priests walked through the crowd and stood near the doomed building, administering Extreme Unction, last rite of the Catholic Church.
Tales Of Heroism
As in most tragedies, there were countless tales of heroism.
A nun, who refused to identify herself, made three trips into the blistering fire, each time leading out six pupils. “I felt untold strength,” she told newsmen while being treated for burns at St. Anne's Hospital.
Casimir Janik, 38, a milkman, said an unexplainable impulse made him alter his regular route home. He arrived at the school before firemen. He parked nearby and several times ran into the school, carrying burned children to safety.
“I found one girl, her shoes missing, hanging on to a banister, seemingly in a state of shock,” he said. “I yanked her loose, took her to church and placed her on a pew. Twice I carried two girls out, one under each arm.”
Students in the school painted a grisly picture of terror.
Pushed Out Of Windows
Linda Barleto, 12, said she was pushed out of a window in a second-floor classroom. “Our backs were burning. Then someone pushed me out the window.” She suffered burns and bruises.
Her cousin Andrea Gagliareo, 12, told newsmen, “Some of the boys jumped out the window. When we looked out we saw them lying still on the ground. It was like a miracle when we saw the firemen with their ladders.”
A boy who lives across from the school, Deroy Hewlett, 13, gave this graphic description: “Kids were hanging from the windows, jumping or falling in groups of three or four at a time. Smoke and flame poured from the windows. A little girl stood at the window of a ledge, screaming for help.”
Early reports that there had been an explosion were discounted by firemen. Commissioner Quinn said the boiler room was intact. Then he said, “This could have been a touch-off. It spread too damn rapidly.”
Fire investigators were closely checking the story of Mrs. Barbara Glowacki, who operates a candy store adjacent to the school on the north. She said just before she learned about the fire a man came into her store and asked to use at telephone.
Search For Man
The man, said Mrs. Glowacki, ran out quickly, calling out, “The school is on fire,” after she told him she had no public telephone.
Police began a search for the man, described as middle-aged.
With a toll of 90 the fire is the nation's third most disastrous school tragedy in the last century. The toll is exceeded only by the New London, Tex., explosion and fire which killed 294 March 18, 1937, and the Collinwood school fire which claimed 176 lives March 4, 1908 in Cleveland.
In Chicago it ranked as the second greatest fire killer of the century. On Dec. 30, 1903, 602 persons died when flames swept through the downtown Iroquois Theater.