On December 1, 1958, a fire broke out in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School in Chicago, IL. 1,600 kindergarten to eighth grade students attended the school. Originally built in 1910, the school was remodeled and additions were added several times over the years. The school was provided with one fire escape and fire extinguishers. There were no fire sprinkers, no automatic fire alarms, and no connection to the fire department. The stair towers were not fire resistant and there were no fire doors for heat or smoke separation to help separate the two floors of the school. Construction of the building was wood with brick exterior walls. As was customary for the time, the wood floors were coated with flammable solvent based wax.
December 1, 1958 was a cold day. Sometime between 1400 and 1420 hours, a fire started in a cardboard trash barrel. The fire burned undetected for an estimated 15 to 30 minutes before a window shattered, allowing fresh oxygen to feed the flames. Smoke was filling the building and the fresh supply of oxygen caused the fire to flash up the stairwell. A pipe chase which ran from the basement to the cockloft became an express route for flames to reach the attic. Flames swept through the hallways before the teachers and students on the second floor realized there was a fire in the building. The only way out was the fire and smoke filled central hallway. 329 students and 5 nuns were trapped on the second floor. Their options were to wait for the fire department to arrive, or jump out the windows into the crushed rock 25 feet below. Some of the nuns brought the children together in the classrooms to pray to God for the fire department to arrive in time to save them. Some prayed. Some children jumped. Other children were pushed or fell out the windows.
The firemen arrived within four minutes from being called, but not in time to save many of the children or nuns. The witnessed the unforgettable outcome of the fire. Children were killed in their fall to the ground. Smaller children could not climb over the window sills, and died in the classrooms. Firefighters witnessed the children in the classrooms when the fire flashed over inside the rooms, killing all the souls remaining inside the room.
A calamity of errors plagued the event. The fire burned without being discovered for approximately one half hour. The fire department was originally given the address of the Rectory which was located around the corner from the school. Valuable minutes were lost because engines needed to relocate and hose lines had to be dragged to the school. The gate to the courtyard of the school was locked, preventing firefighters from getting to the children along the south classroom windows. 160 children were rescued from the school, but 87 children and three nuns lost their lives.
The school passed a fire department inspection two weeks earlier. Because the school was built prior to the 1949 Chicago Fire Code for Schools, it was “grandfathered” into the old code and safety improvements were not required to be made.
As a result of the fire and horrendous loss of life, fire codes nationwide were changed to require schools to upgrade their fire safety programs and devices to meet current fire codes. Another sad lesson as to how the fire codes are written in calamity, blood, and loss of life…