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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)
Gigantic IFs Jolt Probers Digging Into Fire Mystery
From the blackened ruins of Our Lady of the Angels school, investigators are tracing a picture of how 90 lives were destroyed in less than 90 seconds.
Questions to be answered are WHAT caused the blaze, WHY did it spread so fast, and HOW can such tragedies be prevented?
To fire department investigators and the police arson squad, it appears that a combination of factors made disaster almost inevitable once a fire started in the crowded school. These factors include:
1—An accumulation of rubbish at the base of a wooden staircase.
2—An open stairwell on the second floor.
3—Delay in discovery of the fire, and possible delay in turning in the first alarm.
The north wing was a 40-year-old brick building, with wood and plaster interiors, rooms and corridors with high ceilings. It had been remodeled in 1951; but heavy coats of varnish covered floors, stairs, desks, woodwork and trimmings.
Nevertheless, the two-story structure was in good condition. A fire inspection last October showed it complied with the city safety code.
There were four means of egress from the second floor — three interior staircases and an outside rear fire escape. On the first floor, there were six exits—three at the front and three at the rear.
Investigators fear that one seemingly innocent practice was the first step toward disaster.
They are told that students carried waste paper to the northeast corner of the building, about 2:15 p.m. every day. The paper was stored under the stairs in a shallow basement, and later burned outside in a metal container.
Police and firemen agree the fire started under this staircase. Exactly what caused it to start is unknown. Perhaps it was spontaneous combustion, a discarded cigaret or even arson. It may never be known.
But the fire had time to smolder and get a good start before being discovered about 2:40 p.m.
Here, the nature of fire enters the picture. Fire attorney Earle Downes explained: “Just as water runs downstream, fire goes up in the direction of a draft.”
The draft probably came from the opening at the top of the stairs. It turned the wooden stairwell into a chimney, sucking smoke and flames into the second-floor corridor.
Proof of this is that a basement boiler room and a washroom adjoining the stairs were not touched. The doors were burned off, but there was no draft in those rooms to draw the flames. A closed wooden door prevented the fire from entering the first floor.
There was only one path the flames could follow—up and into the second floor.
Fed by papers, wood and varnish, the fire roared up the stairs. Smoke filled the corridor and seeped into classrooms on the second floor. Then came the final blow.
Survivors say windows were opened and apparently several classroom doors as the fire bell sounded. This created an even greater draft, causing flames to flash down the corridor in a matter of seconds.
Witnesses tell of hearing a “woosh.” From that point on, the children didn't have a chance.
The fire had built up its own windstorm, and one breath of the super-heated gasses was enough to kill. Flames were consuming the walls and ceiling, and the main escape route was cut off.
Children leaped from windows as fire swept into classrooms. One room in the far northwest corner was comparatively untouched by flame, yet youngsters there were suffocated.
There are many modern technical methods by which the holocast might have been prevented. They include:
1—Automatic sprinklers and/or an automatic fire alarm system! These devices set up a water spray and sound an alarm when room temperature reaches the danger point.
2—Automatic fire doors on stairways. These are fireproof doors that are closed by heat, sealing off the fire at the point of origin and preventing drafts.
3—Closed stairwells and fire resistant construction. In newer schools, stairs and corridors are fireproof, though classrooms may be wood and plaster. However, these methods are expensive, and would call for drastic remodeling in Chicago-area schools.
Even with that, there's no 100 per cent guarantee against tragedy, because of the human element.
The human factor of Our Lady of the Angels school involves many IFS-IF the papers had not been stored under the stairs. IF the fire had been discovered early and a prompt alarm turned in and IF classroom doors had remained shut.
Any one of these IFS might have prevented disaster, or at least reduced the death toll.
But the biggest question remains unanswered: Exactly WHAT started the fire at. the bottom of the stairs?