I was 9 years old the day of the fire... and I was in the 4th grade at Ascension, a Catholic School in Oak Park. I had stayed after school to learn Latin, because they were beginnng to train some of us as altar boys. One of the nuns came in and told us that there was a terrible fire at OLA. Most Oak Parkers were transplanted from the West Side , and as a result,we all had friends whose relatives lived in the city parishes.Everyone knew someone from OLA, HOC, St Lucy's, St. Angela's, Res, etc. (I had originally been from Resurrection at Laramie & Jackson, not too far from OLA .)
I went home, and heard the news reports on the radio about the fire, and like most people, I was very stunned. My grandmother and mother and dad were all West Siders, and you just knew they'd know someone involved.My mom had been educated by the BVM's, and knew some of the teachers.
Around 6:45 my father came home. He was a Chicago policeman, assigned to Fillmore, and his patrol area was around Central Park and Washington, only 5 or 6 blocks from the school. (Even though he was a Chicago cop, we lived in Oak Park, and he used his sister's Chicago address.) What I remember most was that as soon as he came through the door, you could smell the smoke on him, and he looked grimy. My mother asked him if he had been there, and he began to weep. I never saw him do that at any other time in my life. I recall him saying that Buddy McBride's daughter was horribly injured. (Buddy was Michelle's dad, and apparently a childhood friend of my dad's.)
He never said anything more about the fire, other than that it was terrible. (He was a typical Chicago cop.... drinking problem and hardass exterior..... which meant he was a boiling cauldron.)Based on the Cowan book, I think he may have been the policeman who was flagged down by one of the parents, a fellow who owned a tailor shop near Pulaski & Madison... the location and time elements match. So I'm pretty sure he was there about the same time as the fire trucks rolled up. I don't know, but I'm guessing he was there for the worst of it.
Monsignor McManus, the Superintendent of Schools, lived at Ascension, and I recall that for years afterward, he seemed a different man. When I would serve Mass for him, he didn't joke around with us, like the other priests,and I remember being told by our nuns not to ever ask him about the fire.
Looking at this website, and the class picture, I realize how similar our classroom building was to OLA... even the kids look the same. (Palomar Studios took ALL the class picture fr the Archdiocese... all from the same angle.)I think the notion 'that could have been me' sticks with all of us who went to Catholic schools on the West Side.
I think of those children and nuns often, and always make it a point to visit the Holy Innocents part of Queen of Heaven whenever I go there.
My heart goes out to all involved. To those who perished, to those who were injured, to the parents, and to those who saw it, and could only clean up the aftermath.God bless them all. What an incredible tragedy.