Only weeks before the holiday season, 95 families lost loved ones in a tragic fire at the Chicago Catholic school, Our Lady of the Angels. Parents were held back from police lines surrounding the school. Neighbors were taking in injured kids to shield them from the frigid temperatures. Kids were jumping from three-story high windows to escape the flames. The smaller kids were pushed back from the escape route from the bigger kids clamoring through the windows.
Can you believe that the school met fire and building codes?
This tragedy brought to light the gross lack of codes to protect people and property from fire, especially in public assembly buildings.
After this tragedy, that all changed.
On Monday, December 1, 1958, a fire started that changed building code throughout the country for schools.
Our Lady of the Angels was an elementary school run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago with 1600 students enrolled. The school was k-8 with severe overcrowding. Many classrooms had 50-60 students packed tightly into the room.
The building was oddly configured because it had been renovated several times. A south wing was built in 1939 and was connected to the north wing by an annex. Together it formed a u-shape with a courtyard in the middle. Generally, when a renovation takes place, the building needs to upgrade to new building codes; however, this school was grandfathered into previous standards. In 1958, when the fire took place, Our Lady of the Angels not only met code, but was considered well-maintained.
The northwest stairwell landing had no fire barrier blocking door. The western stairwell landing second floor had two substandard doors with glass panes that broke from the heat of the fire.
The fire ignited near a stairwell at the end of the day, right before dismissal. Nearly all the victims were on the second floor of the building.
At 2pm in the north wing a fire ignited in a trash barrel filled with cardboard. The fire smoldered for 20 minutes completely undetected. Slowly it heated up the stairwell and blanketed the space with a light gray smoke. That light gray smoke became black, thick, oily, and toxic soon enough.
The smoke began to go up the stairwell to the second floor, but remained unnoticed until three eight grade girls saw it while running errands at 2:25pm. At this point, the fire had been smoldering and building for 25 minutes. The girls, Janet Delaria, Francis Guzaldo, and Karen Hobik were returning to their classrooms on the second floor when they saw the fire. The girls ran to the classroom to tell their teacher, Sister Mary Helaine O’Neill, about the fire. Only Janet Delaria survived.
Sister Mary Helaine O’Neill made the decision that it was too dangerous to evacuate and shut the door to await rescue. However, it was several more minutes before any alarms sounded.
While the fire alarm sounded, a window burst from the heat, causing a surge from the increase in oxygen. This fire surge caught a 30-inch by 24-foot roll of tarred building paper on fire, making the smoke even more deadly.
The wooden staircase burst into flames and became a chimney for the smoke and fire to the second floor.
The fire could now be seen from the windows and had finally caught the attention of others. The school janitor James Raymond saw the fire and instructed two boys that were emptying garbage to evacuate. Instead, those boys went to their classroom to warn the teacher.
The teachers of the boys Raymond told to evacuate attempted to sound the alarm, but it never went off. The teachers proceeded to evacuate the children and went back to attempt to sound the alarm again. This time it sounded in the building; however, it was not connected to the fire department.
Raymond then went to the housekeeper to call the fire department and began evacuating the children at 2:30pm. However, the first call to the fire department didn’t come in until 2:42pm. One minute after this call, Barbara Glowcacki, the owner of a candy store near the north wing called the fire department when a passing motorist, Elmer Barkaus, saw the fire and asked to use the phone.
By the time the fire alarm sounded, the children and nuns in the north wing, second floor were trapped.
The doors had transom for ventilation. Once the transom broke from the heat, the fire and toxic smoke flooded the classrooms. The fire swept down the hallway, and into the classrooms. Children began jumping from the window, twenty-five feet above concrete and rock.
The fire department arrived four minutes after getting the call. However, at this point, the fire had already been burning and spreading for forty minutes.
When firefighters arrived, they immediately elevated it to a 5-alarm fire.
Firefighters began rescuing kids from the second-floor window. At this point, the fire and smoke was so bad kids were stumbling and crawling to the window. Many had already jumped or were pushed from the window to escape.
At 2:55pm, a flashover occurred, catching the roof on fire. The roof caved in over rooms 208, 209, and 210. Many died instantly.
Priests raced to the scene, grabbing scared students, helping them escape. Father Joseph Ognibene and Sam Tororice, the father of student Rose Tororice, rescued most of the students in room 209 by passing them through the courtyard window and placing them on the annex.
Raymond was cut badly, but kept helping kids escape. He worked with Father Charles Hund to open locked emergency doors in 207. Thanks to their efforts, all kids from 207 survived.
In the end, 160 kids were rescued, 92 kids died, and 3 nuns died.
Injured students were taken to five different hospitals. Some were taken in strangers’ cars to the hospitals. The news of this tragedy spread across the country and had far-reaching effects.
The NFPA president, Percy Bugbee said, “There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.”
Nationwide, school fire safety was enacted. Within a year, 16,500 schools in the U.S. were brought up to current code. NFPA estimated that 68% of U.S. communities inaugurated and completed fire safety improvements. One of those improvements was an increase in law-mandated fire drills.
Fire alarm boxes became required to be installed in front of all schools and public assembly venues.
Interior fire alarms needed to be connected to street fire alarm boxes.
The most critical change was that fire sprinklers were supposed to be installed in critical schools. However, when inspectors came through nine months later, only 400 in 1,040 Chicago schools that were required to install fire sprinklers did install them.
Our Lady of Angels was rebuilt with fire sprinklers and opened to students in September 1960.
The school closed in 1999 and the building is now leased to a charter school.
Video footage from the fire is below.