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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958
Ashes to Ashes -- Dust to Greatness

Our Lady of the Angels (1958)

Thirty-eight years ago, Our Lady of the Angels was one of the largest parishes in the Chicago Archdiocese, with more than 1,600 students enrolled in the parish elementary school. Near the end of the school day on Dec. 1, 1958, a fire started in a cardboard trash drum in the building's basement at the base of an open stairwell. The deadly blaze snaked up the unenclosed stairs undetected, trapping students and nuns from the school's teaching religious order in the second-floor classrooms.

Before the afternoon was over, firefighters would pull the bodies of 87 students and three nuns from the smoldering wreck. Scores of other students were grievously injured from burns and broken bones they sustained jumping out of the second-floor windows to escape their flame-engulfed classrooms. Later, five more students would die from fire-related injuries, bringing the final death count to 95.

In the weeks following the fire, angry questions resounded from an outraged city. How did the fire happen? Why did it burn so long undetected? Why didn't the school's fire alarm ring?

Our Lady of the Angels School was built in 1910, with a second section added in 1939. The school was constructed of wood and plaster, with an exterior brick facade. Interior ceilings were finished with acoustical tile, and the entire structure featured wood trim.

In 1949, Chicago municipal codes required all new school buildings to be constructed of non-combustible materials and contain enclosed stairwells and doors. Since the law was not retroactive, it did not affect schools built prior to 1949.

Further investigations determined that the open stairwell inside Our Lady of the Angels created a "chimney effect," and that fire separations leading to doomed second-floor classrooms were not in place when the blaze ignited. A fire alarm system rang inside the school, but the signal was not transmitted to the nearest fire department 10 blocks away.

Amendments giving greater protection to school-age populations were made to the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Life Safety Code® (NFPA 101).

"A school is different from an assembly or business occupancy," explains Ron Coté, principal life safety engineer for the NFPA. "The Life Safety Code® is based on the character of the group we're trying to protect. For example, students are taught to take directions from teaching staff, and knowing that school staff runs drills to practice leading students to safety during a fire allows us to treat schools as a separate occupancy with a unique package of requirements."

Other provisions of the Life Safety Code® require schools to provide enclosed stairwells; fire-resistant separations between corridors and classrooms; fire-rated doors and windows; large operational windows in each classroom to allow for rescue, escape and smoke ventilation; and a corridor system appropriate to occupant load, so that students and teaching staff can safely exit school buildings.

The official cause of the Our Lady of the Angels School fire was determined to be an accident, although a troubled youth who had been a student at the school later confessed to starting the fire in the school's basement. (The boy was never formally charged.)

"The impact of any large fire is measured by the changes that occur in certain laws and model codes that might evolve," says NFPA Director of Codes and Standards Casey Grant. "Our Lady of the Angels energized the need for proper fire protection for schools in North America."