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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1958 - In the News -Chicago School Fire
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1958!
On December 1, 1958, during a cold, windy afternoon at approximately 2:00 p.m. a fire began in a trash drum in the basement at Our Lady of Angels School on North Avers Avenue in Chicago. The U-shaped, two-story school was built in 1910 as part of a Catholic church enclave of buildings that included the school, a church, and a rectory.

By 2:30 p.m., the fire had spread into the stairwells and the second floor corridor. The fire skipped the first floor where heavy wooden doors leading to the hallway remained closed. Hot air and gasses from the basement rose rapidly through an open shaft in a wall, ascended the two stories, and filled the cockloft above the second floor.

As the air above the second floor became superheated, flames sparked in the north wing of the school. The embers began falling into the second floor corridor through ventilation grilles. Combined with the dense smoke and gasses, the embers and ensuing flames made the second floor corridor impassable. The corridor was the only escape route for those on the second floor.

At 2:40 p.m., the fire came to the attention of someone at the school who put in a still alarm and box alarm to the local fire department.

As the hallway transoms exploded and hallway lightbulbs began to burst, the nuns and students found no way out of the second floor of the school. The thick, black smoke began to enter second floor classrooms around the corridor doors. The outside windows offered the only escape route and, for 329 children and 5 teaching nuns, the only remaining means of escape was to jump from their second floor windows to the concrete and crushed rock 25 feet below.

By now, the parish priests and some neighbors of the school arrived and attempted to help the terrified children and nuns out of the school. Reports indicated that a 74-year old heart patient managed to save several children before being overcome by a stroke and requiring medical attention.

Engine 85 arrived at 2:44 p.m. after being initially misdirected to the church rectory around the corner from the school, but, by then, the fire had been raging for at least 20-30 minutes. As firemen rushed to the scene, they ignored protocol and issued a 5-11 alarm calling for all available fire units. All available ambulances were also called to the scene.

The hellish conditions in some of the classrooms had become unbearable, and children were stumbling, crawling, clawing, and fighting their way to the windows, trying to breathe and escape. Many jumped, fell, or were pushed out before firemen could get to them. Some were killed in the fall, and scores more were injured. Many of the smaller children were trapped behind the frantic crowds at the windows, blocking any chance to escape through a window. Some of the little ones who managed to secure a spot at a window were then unable to climb over the three-foot-high window sills, or were pulled back by others frantically trying to scramble their way out. Helplessly, firemen watched in horror as classrooms, still filled with frightened children, exploded in flames instantly killing those who remained.

By 3:45 p.m. the firemen had the fire under control. The work of recovering bodies began. Firemen found 24 children at their desks in one room, their school books open before them. It was presumed that their teacher, knowing escape was impossible through the smoke-filled corridor, had told the children to await rescue. They obeyed and died, apparently when smoke overcame them or when the fire's heat exhausted the oxygen in the room.

According to reports by Dr. James Seagraves of St. Anne's Hospital where most of the injured children were taken, "Four to six of the youngsters were not expected to last the night. Many of the children's bodies had been broken when they jumped from second story windows. The flesh of others had been seared to the bone."

160 children had been rescued from the blaze with seventy-seven of those sustaining serious injury. Eighty-seven children and three nuns died on December 1, 1958. Three more critically injured children died before Christmas followed by two more in 1959, the last one on August 9. In the end, 92 children and 3 nuns perished, bring the ghastly death toll to a staggering 95.

Despite numerous hearings and investigations, offers of assistance from the FBI, and a focus on two chief suspects who both confessed and later recanted, no charges were ever brought with respect to the loss of life or the possible arson.

The tragedy did prompt changes in the building codes for schools including the requirement for automatic sprinkler systems, automatic internal fire alarm systems, and fire doors throughout school buildings. Nearly 68% of American schools implemented fire safety programs and code changes following the Chicago fire. While schools in many parts of the nation were being rechecked for fire hazards, officials of at least a half dozen cities arranged to come to Chicago to get a first hand account of the disaster of Our Lady of the Angels School. Among them were officials of New York, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Miami, San Francisco, and Cleveland.

A news article appearing within days of the fire lists the known dead:

CHICAGO, Dec. 1 - (AP) - Here is the list of dead identified in the Cook (Chicago) County morgue who perished in a fire Monday at the Our Lady of the Angels grade school. Ninety died and nearly 100 children were injured. Nine pupils still have not been identified.

Joseph Massidla, 11; Karen Culp, 10; Wayne Wise, 10; Marilyn P. Rech, 10; David Biscan, 11; Linda Malinski, 10; Patricia Kuzma, 10; Annette Mantia, 10; Karen Baroni, 9; Donald Mele, 10; Frank Piscopo, 12; Joseph Canella, 10; Barbara Hosking, 10; John Janjkoski (sic), 10; Joanne Ciolino, 10; John A Manganello, 10; Frank Piscopo, 12; Joseph Modiga, no age available.

Elaine Pesoli, 10; Janet Gasteier; James Profita, 9; Linda Stabile, 9; Ronald Fox, 14; John D Trota, 13; Joann Chrzos, 9; William Sarno, 13; Jo Anne Sarno, 9; Rosalie Ciminello, 12; Rosanna Ciochin, 9; Charles Neubert, 9; Kathleen Magerty, 13; Jo Ann Chiappetta, 10; Roger Ramlow, 10; Eileen Pawlie, 13; Raymond Makomski, 12; Diane Karwaki, 9; Richard Bobrowicz, 13; Richard Kampanowski, 10; Peter Cangelosi, 10; Kenneth Kompanowski, 14; Kathleen Mary Carr, 9; Yvonne Pacini, 9; Angeline Kalnowski, no age available.

James Sickels, 10; Mary Virgilio, 15, Nancy Rae Finnigan, 14; Lawrence Grosso, 12; Michele Altobell, 13; Karen Margaret Hobek, 13; Mark Allan Stochura, 9; Milicent Corsiglia, 13; Maria Dijulio, no age available.

Nancy Mary Desanto, 9; Edward Nikinske, 12; Mary Finale, 12; James R Moravek, 13; Helen Ann Busiac, 12; Annette Lanantia, 10; Christine Vitacco, 12; Mary Ellen Moretti, 12; Nancy Riche, 12; Patricia Ann Drzymala, 12; Nancy Smid, 10; Peggy Sansonetti, 11; Margaret Kucan, 10; Robert Anglin, 10; Margaret Chambers, 9; Marge Lasala, no age available.

Richard Hardy, 9; Lawrence Dunn, Jr., 8; Antoinette Secco, 10; Phillip Tampano, 12; Aurelius Chiapette, 11; Mary Louise Tamburrno, 13; Frances Fuzaldo, 12; Nancy Pilas, 12; Carolyn Perry, 10; Antonnette Patrasso, 11; Sister Mary Seraphica Kelley, 43; Sister Mary Claire Theresa Champagne, 27; Sister Mary St. Canice Lynge, 44; Carol Ann Gazzola, 13; James Ragona, 9; Beverly Burda, 13 (tentative).

End of news article.

It should be noted that the majority of the classrooms consumed by the fire itself were on the second story and housed mostly seventh and eighth graders. At the time of the fire, just before the close of the school day, some of the 1,200 students were across the courtyard at the church. Nearly all of the first floor students escaped the blaze unharmed.

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