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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)
Chicago Presses Search for Clues to Fire At School
Police Think Cigarette May Have Set Blaze - Safety Check Is Ordered Here
Special to the New York Times
CHICAGO, Dec. 2 - Investigators searched without success today for the cause of yesterday's fire that took ninety lives in Our Lady of the Angels parochial school on Chicago's West Side. Eighty-seven of the victims were children attending the grade school and three were nuns, who were their teachers.
Police, fire and other city officials, the office of the Coroner of Cook County and the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation collaborated in attempting to determine the cause of the disaster. The death toll was the highest in a school fire in the city's history.
[Officials throughout the nation reacted energetically Tuesday to the Chicago fire tragedy. In New York, city firemen were started on inspection of the 1,500 public, private and parochial schools. Governor Harriman ordered a state-wide check of all schools. Similar precautionary steps were taken in other areas.”
74 Still in Hospital
Seventy-one children and three nuns remained in hospital today. Sixty-three were in good condition. Eleven, including one nun, were on the critical list. Four girls are still missing.
Also in a hospital was James Raymond, 44 years old, a janitor of the school, at 3820 West Iowa Street. Mr. Raymond has not been able to give the police an account of the moments shortly before and after the outbreak of fire at 2:40 P.M.
Mr. Raymond was known to have been on the scene of the fire. The police said they were eager to question him as soon as he was able to give a coherent account.
Cigarette Theory Studied
Arson experts of the Police Department advanced the theory this morning that the blaze might have been caused by a cigarette carelessly discarded by someone who had sneaked a smoke. It is know that the fire started in the stairwell in the basement of the two-story brick building, which had been a church before being converted into a school.
The police cautioned, however, that this theory lacked substantiation. However, they pointed out that a cigarette might have caused a stock of discarded papers to smolder for an hour or so before the blaze burst forth.
Investigators were unable to say whether the possible “sneak” smoker had been a student. However, it was disclosed that some of the boys had told police that “sneak” smoking by boy students did occur occasionally.
The flames spread through the building so rapidly that most of the children had no chance to begin their often-practiced fire drills.
Many of them were killed when they leaped from the second floor windows of the school to the pavement.
Stairwell Focus of Inquiry
The stairwell, leading from the basement to the first floor, was the focal point of the investigation throughout the day.
It was up this stair that an unidentified janitor had rushed to shout, “call the Fire Department.” That was twenty minutes before the school was to have been dismissed for the day.
The stairwell is 25 feet long and 15 feet wide. The police found stacks of paper in the basement. Sgt. Drew Brown of the Police Department's Arson Squad said today the condition of the papers had prompted him to theorize that the blaze had started in them.
However, it was established that within ten minutes before the blaze broke out from twelve to fifteen boys had taken wastebaskets of discarded classroom papers to the boiler room. The boys had gone to the room by varying routes, to dump the papers in a container.
It was the custom, it was revealed, to store the papers until conditions outdoors were suitable for burning them in a container in the school yard.
There were no reasons given as to why the papers had not been burned yesterday. The weather was clear and a light breeze was blowing in the afternoon. The temperature was slightly below freezing.
Two boys, a little tardy in their chores, said one had mentioned to the other that he smelled “something different” in the basement as they started back to their home room. Before they reached it the janitor began to shout his warning.
Mr. Raymond told the police last night that he had been walking toward the school, coming from the Our Lady of the Angels Church, in the same block, when he saw smoke coming from the northeast corner of the building.
Whether it was he who gave the alarm could not be determined, it was reported, until the police were able to question him again.
Flames Rush Upstairs
As Sergeant Brown reconstructed the episode, the blaze roared up the stairwell to the second floor. In moments that floor was enveloped in billowing smoke and fast-moving flames. It was on this floor that the trapped victims died. All on the first floor escaped.
The draft created by the mounting flame and heat drew the fire directly to the second floor of the tightly closed building, it was believed. Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn said today, that it appeared that the dense smoke might have been caused by burning linoleum.
Survivors continued to recount today how the smoke had rushed into rooms as doors were opened. Its density and the intenseness of the heat appeared to have driven back those attempting to escape into the rooms to seek safety at the windows. Those who were not immediately overcome leaped to death and injury from the windows.
“Once a fire gets going,” commissioner Quinn said today, “it goes faster than you can run. All you need is one inhalation of that superheated air. It doesn't take much to trap a person and snuff out his life,” he added.
'All Laws Complied With'
He went on to say that the school had been inspected by the Fire Department during Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 5-11.
“All the laws were complied with. The building actually was what one would term very clean,” Commissioner Quinn said.
Commissioner Quinn agreed with other investigators that the fire escape leading from the northeast rear corner of the second floor to the ground had played no role in the loss of life.
There had been a delay in pulling the balanced stairway to the ground and another delay in opening the second floor door leading to it. But these delays of a few moments did not cause any fatalities, authorities agreed.
Escape Door Not Closed
The fire escape door, in a corridor, was almost the width of the building away from the stairway, which funneled the smoke and flames to the second floor.
It was found today that all twenty-four to thirty children who had used the fire escape got out of the building safely. Most of the victims died in the three rooms on the west side of the building and two on the east side.
The police today amended last night's report that some twenty-four children had been found dead, seated at their desks. A few of the children were found still at their desks; others lay on the floor.
Commissioner Quinn also agreed with a city building official that while the school building conformed with building and fire codes of the city, such a school could not be built in the same manner today. The parish's original church, now the school, was built in 1908.
It was listed in city records as a “pre-ordinance” structure - not affected by the building code adopted in 1949. The new code requires “enclosure” of stairwells with fire-resistant materials.
Mayor Richard J. Daley said today that the tragedy would bring about a “thorough review and survey by experts” of the city's codes for fire prevention.
Walter McCarron, the County Coroner, said today he would start an inquest next week.
Commissioner Quinn said that an examination at the police crime laboratory of various articles taken from the scene had not shown any evidence of arson.
The police today were trying to find a boy known only as “Richard.” The boy was reported to have been seen by other boys loitering in the boiler room although he had no duties there.
'Much More to Be Done'
Public school officials said that in the last four years the city had conducted a fire prevention program, “which is the most extensive in a generation.” This has included the installation of fireproof stairwells, replacement of wooden floors and trimming with fireproof materials and relocation of boiler rooms in the city's older schools.
The Right Rev. Joseph F. Cussen, pastor of Our Lady of the Angels Parish, said today that plans to replace the school would await reports from building inspectors and engineers.
Meanwhile, pupils left without classrooms by the disaster will attend classes in near-by parochial schools as son as accommodations can be arranged. The headquarters of Catholic Charities here said today it would provide free bus transportation for the children.
Catholic Charities will also furnish textbooks and other materials lost in the fire.
The Cook County morgue today was a scene of heartbreak for scores of parents as one by one the bodies of the children were identified. In many cases, identification rested on such small personal items as a 10-cent ring on a girl's finger or a pocket knife in a boy's trouser pocket.
Family dentists, carrying dental charts of their young patients, also helped in the identifications.
On a table lay an assortment of Mickey Mouse watches, jewelry and small trinkets, once happily worn by the children.
Last night there [were] sixty-eight bodies in the morgue. Today the number slowly dwindled as sorrowful identifications were made.
The three nuns remaining today in St. Anne's Hospital are: Sister Mary Davidis, Sister Mary Helaine and Sister Mary Geraldita. Sister Mary Helaine is on the critical list. The other two nuns are reported to be in good condition.