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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958

Saved by a brawny angel, man strives to say 'thanks'

Last Updated: May 6, 2001
Jim Stingl

Michele Altobell, Richard Bobrowicz, Aurelius Chiappetta, Millicent Corsiglia, William R. Edington Jr., Nancy Rae Finnigan . . .

I'm reading a list of Larry Sorce's eighth-grade classmates from Room 211 who died in the fire that tore through Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago on Dec. 1, 1958, just minutes before the dismissal bell.

Twenty-four students perished in this one classroom; 92 children in all died in the fire, along with three nuns, trapped on the second floor of the west side Catholic school.

The fire, the third deadliest school fire in U.S. history, rewrote school fire safety laws in America, ripped apart a working-class neighborhood, and five years ago spawned a book, "To Sleep With the Angels."

Larry Sorce's angel that day was a brawny Chicago firefighter named Charles Kamin who climbed a ladder to his classroom and started pulling children to safety, as many as he could even as he was being burned.

"He's my hero. He's the guy who put the ladder up. I remember him being three-fourths of the way up the ladder and he signaled me to come out," Sorce said.

Today, Sorce is 56 and lives in Elm Grove with his wife and daughter. He's a senior vice president of investments at Robert W. Baird & Co. Sorce came to Milwaukee in the 1960s to attend Marquette University and, after a hitch in Vietnam, made this area his home.

Several months ago he set out on a mission to find and to thank firefighter Kamin for saving his life. The death of Sorce's mother last September reminded him of the relentless passage of time and the need to say what needs to be said, especially when it's thank you.

For most of the years since 1958, Sorce didn't connect a name with the man who saved him. But a close reading of "To Sleep With the Angels" and conversations with the authors, David Cowan and John Kuenster, left him with no doubt that it was Kamin.

Sorce soon discovered that Kamin had retired and moved to little Dolores, Colo., and had died at age 72 in a car accident in November 1992. He sifted through the Chicago Tribune on microfilm at the library in Brookfield and found Kamin's obituary. It mentioned a son, Charles M. Kamin Jr.

So now Sorce is searching for the son. Forty-three years after the fire, he wants to meet with Kamin's son and tell him face to face what his father did for him. He wants him to know, if he doesn't already, that his dad was a great man.

In his quest to find the son, he has scoured the Internet and sought help from friends and Sen. Herb Kohl's office. He talked to a chaplain with the Chicago Fire Department. He asked the firefighters union if they knew how to reach Kamin's descendants.

The funeral director who handled the fire lieutenant's arrangements had a Chicago phone number for Charles Jr., but it was assigned to someone else five years ago. Sorce found a Charles G. Kamin in Delaware and a Charles R. in Pennsylvania, but no Charles M.

He is not giving up.

He uncovered an article about the fire that ran in Firehouse magazine in 1977. Kamin, who was still on the force at that time, is quoted in the story: "Every once in a while, it still bothers you. You can see these kids and you hear them. I mean screaming."

Firefighters did everything they could, he said. "We did. And no matter what, you can only do so much. You do the best you can. That's it."

The article said Kamin's eyes filled with tears when he discussed the fire. Sorce, too, wept as we talked about the terrible day. He's pretty sure he has blocked out the most painful images from the ordeal.

Born in Chicago, he lived on Hamlin Ave., two doors from the church-school complex. He attended Our Lady of the Angels - the name of the school couldn't be more haunting - from first to eighth grade.

On the day of the fire, he remembers, he was sitting in the second row from the windows, about four seats from the front of the classroom, which was large and held perhaps 60 children. The clock on the wall over Sister Mary Helaine's head said 18 minutes to 3.

A student who had left the room on an errand came in the door and said, "Sister, sister, there's smoke in the hall, there's fire." Sister Mary Helaine looked in the hallway and immediately closed the door and the transom, but smoke began sneaking in through the cracks.

The students surged toward the windows and threw them open. Sorce remembers the feeling of his panicking classmates pressing against him from behind, trying to get fresh air. And he remembers looking outside and seeing people from the neighborhood trying to break down an iron picket fence that blocked access to the courtyard below the classroom windows.

Finally, after about 10 minutes passed and many students had jumped in a panic, Kamin appeared on the ladder. After Sorce reached the ground and began to run, he looked back.

"A huge flame shot right out of the window where I had been standing," he said. Rescue turned to recovery.

In the days that followed, his father took him to many wakes for his lost friends. Michele Altobell had been his sort-of girlfriend at the time. She was identified by her jewelry. Sorce can't forget how angry people were - at the school, teachers, janitors, the Chicago Archdiocese, the Fire Department, anyone. Something so horrible had to be someone's fault.

The fire is believed to have started in a trash bin in a basement stairway, but exactly what caused it was never officially determined. In their book, Cowan and Kuenster assert that the fire was intentionally set by a student.

A memorial Mass is held every year on Dec. 1 at Our Lady of the Angels Church, still standing next to the rebuilt school. Sorce has been to several of these and also to reunions of his eighth-grade class along with his friend, Jim Campion of Whitefish Bay. Campion may owe his life to the fact that he volunteered to leave Room 211 early to work on a clothing drive over at the church.

A few months ago, Sorce visited Queen of Heaven Cemetery near Chicago, where many of the dead are buried near a monument that names all the victims of the fire.

Schools didn't bring in the trauma teams like they do now. "You just kind of went on with life. It wasn't that we were trying to hide it, but it was over," Sorce said.

"I've never felt one ounce of anger. I've felt some guilt - why am I here? And I've felt lucky," he said.

Along with a strong need to give thanks that he made it past age 13.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 6, 2001.