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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958
Winning Entry, Rocco Longo Scholarship - OLA Survivor Interview
Our Lady of Angels Oral History Interview
Survivor: Matt Plovanich
Conducted: May 21 2012
By Gordy Scott (Age 12)

It was Monday, May 21, 2012. I was in the car with my dad on the way to interview Matt Plovanich. It was a sunny, warm, clear day, much the opposite of the day of the Our Lady of Angels Fire, which blazed on a crisp, cold day in early December, 1958.When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was a weathered ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary on the Plovanich front porch. Seeing the statue caused me to wonder what sort of person I was going to interview. My dad and I were greeted by Mr. Plovanich, a tall, slightly tanned 64-year-old man. A retired police officer and lifelong resident of the Northwest Side, he has a deep voice with a strong Chicago accent and a friendly outgoing manner. He has a broad smile and welcomed me into his home with a sweep of his arm.
He lives in a cozy Chicago brick bungalow filled with family photos and mementos, perhaps surrounding himself with reminders of his past, always thinking of what might have been if Charlie Hund and Jim Raymond hadn't opened that classroom door. I could feel the history of the house and the family who called it home: hardwood floors, old books and papers and lots of memories. It even smelled like a classic old Chicago bungalow. I had barely stepped through the door before Mr. Plovanich started going down the list of the different sodas he had to offer me. I initially turned down his offer of a drink, but eventually his daughter came in and asked me, once again, insisting that I must be thirsty after asking so many questions. Mr. Plovanich was humble and humorous; cracking jokes, most of them at his own expense. He offered me the most comfortable seat in the house, poured a Coke for me, and settled down for 90 minutes to chat about the fire and what he believes was his gift from God.
3rd Grade Class Picture, 1956. Matt Plovanich is 2nd from the right in the 4th row.
What can you tell me about the day of the fire?
It was a clear crisp day and unseasonably cold, the low was 17 degrees. The day started like every other school day. It was December 1958, the first day back after Thanksgiving break. I was ten years old, so the month of December was kind of magical: it meant Christmas was coming soon. There was a sort of excitement in the air for all of us.
What were you doing in class at the time?
We had just gotten an assignment for geography so we had our books open up to the page we were supposed to do for homework. We were finishing up for the day; I think it was about 10-15 minutes before school was supposed to end. (News reports from the day of the fire showed pictures of schoolroom clocks stopped ominously at around 2:40 pm.)
Why was your room called the Cheesebox?
It was the smallest classroom in the school so students nicknamed it the Cheesebox. It had been a library but due to overcrowding at the school it was used as a classroom. We had a split fifth and sixth grade class. I thought being in a split classroom would make the next school year easier because I would have a birds-eye peek into sixth grade as a fifth grader.
There are many different stories and rumors about how the fire started. How did it happen?
Jim Raymond, the janitor, had a 55 gallon cardboard drum that he would strap to his shoulder; he would pick up the papers and garbage from each classroom and carry it to the incinerator in the basement.
There was a student in the next classroom who I, and many others, think started it. He was a pyromaniac and would set mailboxes on fire. He asked for permission to go to the bathroom. He went to the basement instead and he later admitted in his confession that he threw five to seven lit matches into the trash-filled drum and returned to his classroom pretending to have gone to the bathroom.
Can you describe the events of the morning once you realized the school was on fire?
Our teacher, Sister Geraldita, ran to the door when we noticed smoke outside the transom window in the hallway. She opened the door and everyone in class realized the whole hallway was engulfed in flames. We were the first class to be hit by the fire because the fire started underneath the northeast stairwell and traveled up a shaft above our room.
Sister closed the door immediately when she realized what was happening in the hall and then ran to the back door to try to get it open. I was seated closest to the back door and I'll never forget the look on her face. She tried the door and finding it locked, she reached for her rosary belt where she always kept her keys. Sister realized she had forgotten her keys in the convent that morning because she was running late. She then tried to shoulder the door open and it didn't budge. I think she was relatively young, probably about 30 years old and fairly small. She asked the two biggest kids in class, both sixth graders, to try and they ran at it twice. It didn't budge. The doors were pretty heavy, solid oak.
Suddenly, the glass in the transom window above the front classroom door shattered and smoke starting pouring in. I've read accounts, very accurately, that described it as “bales of black cotton.” Seeing that was pretty traumatic and then the front door lit up in flames. Here's the problem: the school was all wood, and heavily varnished. Everyone always commented on how good the school looked with glossy shiny floors and baseboards. But all that varnish is highly flammable and nobody thought about what would happen in a fire.
After the front door lit up, we all ran to the back door, and Sister had us all huddle on the floor. Smoke has a tendency to stay up high and then it falls lower and lower. We were right across the gangway from the rectory so we threw some flower pots through the windows to get the caretaker's attention. The caretaker then alerted Fr. Charles Hund, one of the parish priests, and he came out in a tee-shirt and leather bomber jacket, looking kind of dazed as he had just woken up from a nap.
I remember the old style schoolhouse globe lights in the classroom exploding above our heads; it was kind of surreal. We had one fire in the front of the room and a second fire roared also through the shaft that traveled from the basement up above the ceiling of the second floor so the ceiling was on fire as a result.
Since we could not get the rear door open, and going out the front door was impossible due to the fire in the hallway, Sister led us in the rosary to prepare us spiritually for what she thought was inevitable: that we were all going to die. We all thought that. Later, in comparing notes with everyone in that classroom, we all thought we were going to die, the only question was how: would we be burned alive or were our lungs going to explode from that terrible heat?
In her own way Sister Geraldita was a hero to me. Through all the screaming and through all the pleading for mommy, daddy, and God to save us she steadfastly said the rosary which gave us something to focus on so we didn't panic. She was very brave under the circumstances and helped us to believe we would be okay and wake up in the arms of God.
What was going through your mind?
We were spiritually trained by the nuns: they always said to keep our souls clean because you never knew when God was going to come take you. I remember thinking, “boy, were they right!” because God crept up that stairwell and took 92 kids and three nuns that day.
The one regret I had when I thought I was going to die was that I couldn't say goodbye to my parents and my brothers. We were a close family, four boys and my mom and dad and we lived in this small apartment. Everything in my life centered on the kitchen table; we ate all of our meals, played games and did our homework there. I had a vision and I saw everyone at our kitchen table and they had their heads down, crying, and my seat was empty. They were missing me. The one regret I had was that I hadn't thanked my parents for all of their sacrifices. When kids are busy growing up your parents are busy growing old. I realized what I meant to my family and what they meant to me.
Looking back I realize I went through three distinct phases. Stage one was Panic: Oh my God the room's on fire and we're trapped! Stage two was Struggle and Solution: Look out the window, assess the jump to the ground, try to get the back door open, alert the people in the rectory. Stage three was Release: Accept the futility of the situation and contemplate the idea this was God's will and my fate. My spiritual training prepared me for this stage and believe me, it was euphoric; I was totally prepared to go to the next level.
How did you escape the burning classroom?
We didn't realize Charlie Hund had climbed up another staircase to our back door. He told me later he'd never been so hot in his life, he thought the clothes were going to burn on his back. He said he couldn't get it open and was weeping because he knew we were trapped. He then glimpsed someone crawling toward him on his stomach and through the smoke he realized it was Jim Raymond. Fr. Hund was amazed and grateful because he knew Jim had the right key to open the back door.
Jim Raymond was frantic to get us out. He knew the room was going to explode in flames once he opened the back door and fed the flames with oxygen.
Jim and Charlie screamed at us to get out. I was the second to last kid to get out. When I finally got outside I've never seen the sky a more brilliant blue and the air was so cold and refreshing. I got a couple steps down the fire escape and the room exploded, all the glass blew out of the window.
Sister was at the back door making sure all the kids had gotten out. She had first degree burns on her face because she wouldn't go down the fire escape until she knew we were all safe. We were the only classroom in the north wing of the second floor to have no fatalities. We had injuries from smoke inhalation but everyone survived.
We were lead to the church, which was loaded with kids, and I realized it was just for the head count. I got counted and ran straight home.
How did you feel knowing the room exploded with just seconds to spare?
I feel extremely lucky and fortunate especially when I realized how many kids died that day. When I left the church I ran toward home and I saw the classrooms over the north alley. I heard the kids screaming for help, I knew those kids I could see in the windows and I couldn't do anything to help.
It was the most horrific scene to see all of these casualties. Many children got to the windows and then looked down and realized how far down it was. They were too scared to jump but their classmates were behind them in an inferno pushing them out of the windows so they could escape too. Everybody was trying to get out. I think the firemen were traumatized by that scene too.
I'm still traumatized by the sight of all the bodies below the windows. I was frozen, helpless because I knew them all. In a way it was our own 9/11 for a small neighborhood to lose so many children. There wasn't a block in our neighborhood that wasn't affected. There were so many funerals and wakes.
There was a first generation Italian family who lived close to the school, the father dragged over his ladder and tried to rescue his son who was in the windows screaming. The ladder was about five feet too short to reach the classroom. The man begged and pleaded with his crying son, a fourth grader, but the boy was too scared to jump out the window into his dad's arms. The father saw his son turn away from the window and collapse as the classroom erupted in flames. The father had to live with the horror of seeing that for the rest of his life.
This was a life lesson; the fact that my life was taken and given back to me was like a resurrection. In an ironic way I'm glad it happened to me and my heart goes out to the families who lost people that day. The collective grief was horrible.
How did your parents learn about the fire?
My dad was supposed to take a few of the nuns shopping and then he heard the fire trucks surrounding the school. He ran to find us and saw the stairwell in flames. He helped with the rescue of other children. He didn't even know where we were because he couldn't get to the second floor.
I ran all the way home without any coat and flew up the stairs to the third floor where we lived. My mom didn't know anything about the fire and she saw me all dirty and sweaty without my coat and thought I'd gotten into a fight or something. “Who have you been fighting with now?”
I screamed, “Mom, the school is on fire!” Then she smelled the smoke on me, grabbed me and hugged me tight. One of our neighbors came up and asked if all of us were home yet and said he had heard the report on WGN radio.
We couldn't find my younger brother until 6 pm that evening because he was only in first grade and he didn't know the way home. My dad called home to check on us and realized nobody had seen my little brother yet so he started knocking on the doors of the bungalows near the school because he had heard that people were just bringing children into their homes.
All three of us got out safe, thank God.
Would you have been able to jump out of the window?
I looked out the window and saw it was a 26-foot jump to solid concrete and I think it would have taken a lot of courage to jump. I didn't have enough courage. For me, at ten years old it seemed like jumping out of the Empire State building.
Did the school have fire drills?
Yes, we did have them on a fairly regular basis, although the fire extinguishers were up so high we couldn't reach them and the fire alarm was just a switch about seven feet up the wall.
You have to realize the rules in the 1950s were very archaic; if a nun discovered a fire, she had to ask the Mother Superior permission to flip the switch. The teacher who discovered the fire, Ms. Tristano (who was my third grade teacher two years before) ran to the office to ask permission to flip the fire alarm switch but Mother Superior wasn't in her office. She ran back to her classroom and evacuated her students. When they were outside she looked back at the school and thought she'd better go in and alert everybody so she ran back in to flip the fire alarm switch. She was just following the rules so nobody should criticize her; unless you're faced with the situation you don't know how you would react.
What happened after the fire?
Temporarily we attended Our Lady, Help of Christians, another Catholic school about 2 miles west. They offered to have us go there until we found other arrangements. They put us on the top floor and we all had the same reaction; we ran to the windows to see how far down it was to the ground in case we had to jump.
I remember passing out milk at lunchtime about two weeks later. I was in the front of the room with my back to our teacher Sister Geraldita and I heard her praying, saying “How could you let that happen to those poor children? They were good and kind.” Then I heard a girl scream. Sister had knocked off her habit and she was sobbing, rocking back and forth. The other nuns came in to help her and she kept saying she just wanted to see God so she could ask him why. Not only were the kids traumatized but the nuns were also. We never saw Sister Geraldita after that.
A lot of people have criticized the janitor, Jim Raymond, can you tell me about that?
Jim Raymond was wrongly criticized because everyone needed to blame someone. I've been motivated by his bravery to go out and tell his story.
It's been my lifelong goal to educate people about what really happened. Jim Raymond was an excellent custodian for our school; he kept our facilities very well. Jim Raymond and Charlie Hund will always be my heroes. I think a hero isn't someone who has no fear; a hero is somebody who is scared to death but still puts another person's needs ahead of their own just like Charlie and Jim did for us that day.
I think I realized that day that heroes aren't always brought up on stage.
Did your experiences lead you to become a police officer?
My dad was already a policeman, and my brother had also been a policeman. I felt obligated. It was service. I felt obligated because a lot of my friends went to Vietnam. I got a high draft number, around 280 out of 365, so I knew I probably wasn't going, but I felt obligated to put my life on the line because people put their life on the line for me. Charlie Hund and Jim Raymond did that for me. I thought that was the least I could do because I was fortunate enough to be here and I didn't die. I wanted to contribute just the way people contributed to me.
As you look back at your life and your successes, you have to give credit to your parents, your grandparents, teachers, mentors along the way. We don't do this on our own; we get inspiration from our parents and from other people that contribute to our life. Nobody's a perfect wonderful person on their own, other people contribute to that. I wanted to give back.
Some survivors of tragedy choose to have the experience be the defining moment of their lives. Can you speak about how your experience influenced you and how you have lived your life?
I think people don't understand. They think how could this incident make your life more spiritual? All those kids died and they prayed too, and how do you justify that? I say that my faith was strengthened because my faith gave me a path; my faith taught me that I was going to go from this life to a wonderful life, and if faith can take a burning classroom in the most dire conditions, almost hell-like conditions, and save all of the kids in it, I think it is a very powerful thing.
When they describe hell, they talk about fire and heat and smoke, and those were the conditions, but if those conditions can be converted into a wonderful sendoff into another life, this sense of euphoria is a powerful thing. I think I've been reminded by that. You look at Mother Teresa, who had unending faith. She was 4 feet tall, diminutive, but she changed so many lives with her faith. It's a hugely inspiring thing.
When you are dealing with really bad people, faith will see you through. I was working as an undercover police officer and I had a number of really close calls where things could have gone either way for me. I was going to St. Pete's Church downtown to pray every day before I went to work as a police officer. And was I still scared? You're darn right I was scared. I worked through it because of my faith and praying. I prayed for God to give my legs the strength to get back out there. I was so scared sometimes I could play “La Bamba” on my knees. Because I had prayer, and I had God behind me I could do amazing things.
Ironically, some of the guys I worked with made fun of me for praying. They would say “Did you go to mass this morning choir boy?” I would say “Heck yeah, I did! You have your own ways of dealing with this, I don't make fun of you, so don't make fun of me, it gives me strength and that's all that matters.” Faith is a very powerful thing, and you remember to keep it, because you'll need it. There are many hurdles in life, and faith will help you to jump over them.
What can I learn from your experience for my own life?
First and foremost: Spirituality. You have to have faith. Trust in God and all may turn out as it should. Some people have that inner strength; I pray every day for what God did for me, and my teachers and mentors and parents.
I realized my parents did everything for me and my brothers, they sacrificed so much for us. When my dad died, a tough guy who was on Omaha Beach, I remember saying that one word in the dictionary changed: Never. It's like a big steel door that slammed shut; I can never talk with him again. He was such an important part of my life. It's a devastating thing. He was bigger than life to me. Don't forget your parents. It's a lesson to me not to take life for granted. We're all like a carton of sour cream with an expiration date stamped on the bottom; you have to be ready because you don't know when God's going to take you.
Finally, in life it's not what happens to you but what you learn from it. An average person learns from his mistakes, a really smart person learns from other people's mistakes, a dumb person never learns from any mistakes.
If you think something is right in your heart, listen to yourself. Stick to your guns and keep your faith about you. You have your own track in life so follow it. And keep your sense of humor.
Never give up your faith.