54 Years ago one of the worst schools occurred in Chicago. Dec 1st is the anniversary
On December 1, 1958, tragedy struck in the Archdiocese of Chicago which would reverberate across the country and affect Catholic and non-Catholics alike. On a day which will live in the hearts and minds of Chicagoans, 92 children and three sisters lost their lives and over a hundred other children lay injured.
Originally founded by the Irish, Our Lady of the Angels grew to be one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago by the 1950s. At the time of the fire, school enrollment had reached 1632 students, under the care of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and nine lay teachers.
It was a cold Monday and school was almost over for the day when a fifth grade teacher, Pearl Tristano, sent two boys from her class to take the garbage to the boiler room incinerator at about 2:25 p.m. On their return a few moments later, they reported the smell of smoke. Tristano spoke with a fellow teacher, Dorothy Coughlan, who then went to report the smoke to Sr. Mary St. Florence Casey, principal of the school. Sr. Mary St. Florence, substituting for an ill teacher, could not be found. By the time Coughlan returned to her class, the smell of smoke was worse and smoke was now visible in the hallways. Tristano and Coughlan decided to disobey school policy and lead the children out of the building as the smoke reached the children’s head level.
The school janitor, James Raymond, noticed smoke coming from the rear of the school shortly after the first report by Tristano’s students. He told the school housekeeper, Norma Mahoney to call the fire department. She made the call at 2:42, the first of fifteen calls received by the fire department before 3:00. She gave the incorrect address for the school which delayed some firefighters from reaching the scene.
After ensuring her students were safe in the parish church, Pearl Tristano returned to the school and set off the fire alarm at 2:43. The alarm only sounded in the school and was not connected with the fire department.
By the time the smoke was first detected, the fire had probably been smoldering for more than ten minutes in the cardboard trash drums in the boiler room. The fire soon spread to the paper and wooden chairs stored at the base of the stairs nearby. Heat caused a basement level window to shatter in the stairwell, feeding the flames. The stairwells acted as chimneys as the hot gases and smoke rose through the building, entering the second floor classrooms through the ventilation grills.
Some teachers were able to lead their students out of the school, such as Sisters Davidis Devine and Adrienne Carolan. Others had their students remain at their desks and pray. Eventually, students ran to the windows looking for an escape. The first student jumped from the upper story at 2:44. One of the pastor’s assistants, Rev. Joseph Ognibene, carried several students to safety and was burned in the process.
A nation was shocked as the death toll mounted. Newspapers ran images of the small victims carried from the smoldering ruins. Some children who survived the fire died later from their injuries. Others were killed in their desperate jump to safety from the second floor windows. The final tally was 92 students and three sisters dead and over a hundred injured.
The three sisters were returned to Our Lady of the Angels in simple coffins to be waked in the convent. On December 5, then Archbishop Albert Meyer and Francis Cardinal Spellman, from New York, officiated at the funeral for 27 children at the Northwest Armory. The Archdiocese of Chicago established a fund to care for the survivors and their expenses. Students attended other schools in the area until Our Lady of the Angels was rebuilt and reopened for the 1960-1961 school year.
On December 10, the official investigation began. A sixteen member panel determined, at the formal inquest, that the fire may have been started by a student smoking in the basement stairwell. The fire did point out flaws which contributed to the death toll. Buildings erected before 1949 were not required to meet the Municipal Code of 1949. The school suffered from open stairwells, ineffective and blocked doors on the second floor, ceilings with combustible tiles, no automatic sprinkler system, and a fire alarm system that was not connected to the fire department. The Our Lady of the Angels School fire changed building and safety codes across the country. It showed the need for all schools to have fire drills, automatic sprinkler systems, and fire safety doors.
In the end, 55 girls, 37 boys, and three sisters died in the Our Lady of the Angels School fire. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.