Our Lady of the Angels School Fire: 50 Years Later

BY ADAM GROVES

On December 1, 1958, the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois, was destroyed by fire. Ninety-two students and three nuns died as a result of the fire; dozens more suffered serious injuries while escaping the burning building. Investigations into the fire revealed inadequate fire protection and safety systems within the school, which contributed to the loss of life.1 The fire received international attention and prompted a series of major changes and enhancements to the fire safety codes and regulations governing U.S. schools and other public buildings.

THE PARISH AND SCHOOL

During the 1950s, Our Lady of the Angels parish was one of the largest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. In addition to serving more than 4,500 families, the parish operated a school for more than 1,600 students, grades kindergarten through eight. More than 1,400 second- through eighth-grade students attended classes in the parish’s main school building; 200 kindergarten and first-grade students attended classes in two annex buildings elsewhere on the Our Lady of the Angels campus.


(1) Front view as ladderman opens roof for ventilation. School wing at right was not involved in fire. [Official Chicago (IL) Fire Department photos and captions originally appeared in “Tragedy in Chicago: An Official Analysis of Our Lady of the Angels School Catastrophe,” Fire Engineering, January 1959, 30-36.]
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The school building was of ordinary construction (brick load-bearing walls and wood joists) in the shape of a horseshoe. A south wing (constructed in 1903) and a north wing (constructed in 1910) were connected by an annex (built in 1951); each was 2½ stories tall. A locked, seven-foot iron picket fence closed off the top of the horseshoe to keep people out of the school’s courtyard. The building had 24 classrooms on two floors, plus a basement that was one-half story above the street level. Like many schools at the time, this school was overcrowded; about 60 students were assigned to each of the 24 classrooms in the main school building.

This main building consisted of a wood and plaster interior with a brick façade. All of the building’s stairwells, aside from one new staircase in the annex building, were also made of wood and plaster; these stairwells were enclosed with fire doors only on the first floor. The classroom ceilings were covered with combustible cellulose fiber tiles, and every classroom door had a glass transom window above it. Even though the 1949 Chicago Municipal Code required that all new school buildings be constructed of noncombustible materials and be equipped with fire protection mechanisms, such as sprinkler systems, enclosed stairwells, and fire doors, the regulation did not retroactively affect existing buildings.

Instead, this school and many other public and private schools in Chicago were still governed by a 1905 city ordinance that predated a number of advancements in fire protection engineering. In terms of fire protection features, the main school building had six exits on the first floor and one fire escape on the second floor of the annex. There were eight soda-acid fire extinguishers, four on each floor, in both wings of the building, but there were no sprinkler systems or smoke detectors. The south wing of the school had two fire alarm activation controls, one on each floor, but there were no fire alarm activation controls in the north wing. Furthermore, the school’s fire alarm rang only inside the school building and did not transmit an emergency signal to a Chicago Fire Department (CFD) fire alarm office.

THE FIRE

Sometime after 2:00 p.m. on December 1, 1958, a fire started in a cardboard trash container at the bottom of a stairwell in the basement of the north wing of the school’s main building.2 After consuming the garbage in the 30-gallon container, the fire smoldered unnoticed for an estimated 20 minutes, until the intense heat broke a window and the fresh supply of oxygen caused the fire to flare up. The flames quickly spread to the wooden staircase and banisters, feeding off the varnished woodwork and the rubberized plastic paint coating the walls. Heat, smoke, and gases from the fire soon blasted up the stairwell as if in a chimney and also traveled up a pipe shaft that led to a narrow cockloft attic between the north wing’s roof and second-floor classroom ceilings. In the stairwell, these products of combustion blew past the first-floor fire doors but rushed into the unprotected second-floor corridor. Students and teachers in the second-floor classrooms were almost immediately trapped by toxic smoke and gases in the corridor and by flames directly above the classroom ceilings.


(2) Every available ladder was pressed into service in rescue effort. Men are removing victim who was trapped in classroom.
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There is no clear timeframe of exactly when the fire was detected in the north wing’s second-floor classrooms, but students and teachers later reported that they noticed the smoke and heat before there were any flames in the corridor. Unfortunately, the corridor was already impassable. Shortly after 2:30 p.m., the school’s janitor, other students and teachers, and passersby on the street noticed the fire. The alarm inside the school was raised, and all of the first-floor classrooms were successfully evacuated, along with the second-floor classrooms in the south wing. Moreover, all of the students in the only second-floor classroom with a fire escape were able to flee from the north wing.

For students and teachers trapped in the five remaining classrooms on the north wing’s second floor, however, the classroom windows were the only means of escape. Inside the classrooms, teachers encouraged the students to remain calm and to wait for firefighters to arrive; but after the gases in the corridor ignited, the intense heat broke the glass transom windows above the classroom doors. As smoke and gases entered the classrooms and flames began to crawl along the combustible ceiling tiles, students soon crowded the windows. Some students jumped out of the windows on their own. Below, school employees and civilians scrambled to raise ladders or to simply break the children’s falls with their bodies. These were the conditions at the school when the first CFD units arrived.

The CFD had received the first alarm for the school fire at 2:42 p.m. The department later estimated that it did not receive the alarm until 10 minutes after the fire was first discovered and that the fire had probably been burning for around 30 minutes when the first firefighters arrived on-scene. Firefighting efforts were further delayed when the first on-scene apparatus were initially sent to the parish rectory instead of the school. Then, firefighters had to use a ladder as a battering ram to break through the locked, seven-foot iron fence that closed off the school’s courtyard. These delays, combined with the fire-friendly atmosphere inside the school, severely limited rescue options.


(3) Destruction in second-floor corridor. Fire burned away or weakened roof beams, causing collapse shortly after arrival of fire companies.
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Some firefighters entered the school with hoselines in an attempt to reach the second floor; others climbed to the roof to ventilate the building. The majority of the firefighters, however, gathered around the classroom windows with ladders and life nets to help rescue the trapped students and teachers. Since individual rescues were too time-consuming, firefighters on the ladders were ordered to drop the children they pulled from the classrooms into life nets or down to firefighters waiting below. The need for haste was driven home when one firefighter at the top of a ladder noticed that the white shirts on the trapped students were quickly turning brown from the heat. In the few seconds before the room reached flashover, he saved the lives of about 10 students by dragging them through the classroom window and dropping them 25 feet down to the sidewalk.

More than 50 pieces of fire and rescue equipment from the CFD had responded to the fire, which was successfully extinguished less than two hours after the first alarm was received. However, although firefighters rescued more than 160 students and teachers from the school, the fire was too powerful for their efforts to be completely successful. In the end, of the estimated 340 students and teachers trapped in second-floor classrooms in the building’s north wing, 92 students (ages eight through 14) and three teachers perished in, or as a direct result of, the fire. Some of the victims, completely untouched by flames, had suffocated because of the noxious gases and other products of combustion. Twenty-six students and their teacher died of smoke inhalation in one classroom alone. Remembering the suffocated children in their classroom, Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn later wrote in Fire Engineering that he “had never witnessed a sight so terrible.”3

JURY’S NONBINDING RECOMMENDATIONS

On December 10, 1958, nine days after the fire, Cook County Coroner Walter McCarron convened a jury for a six-day inquest into the fire. The “blue ribbon” jury included representatives from the insurance, construction, and fire protection industries, as well as architects, engineers, and other leading Chicago businessmen. In his opening remarks, McCarron stated: “I hope something may come out of this to save lives in the future, not only in Chicago, but throughout the country.”4 After interviewing key personnel from the parish, the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the CFD, as well as fire protection experts, the jury determined that because the school was still governed by the 1905 city ordinance and not the 1949 Chicago Municipal Code, the facility was legally safe, even though it did not measure up to any contemporary fire safety standards.

On January 7, 1959, the jury announced more than 20 nonbinding recommendations for improving fire safety in schools. The recommendations included retroactive fire protection system improvements at all schools, including the installation of automatic sprinklers and smoke/heat detectors, the enclosure of all stairwells and other vertical passages, and the installation of fire barrier doors at all corridors and room partitions. The jury also advocated that all schools install new fire alarm systems that would alert both school occupants and the fire department at the same time, as well as the installation of fire department alarm boxes within 100 feet of the entrances to public and private schools.

In addition, the jury recommended revising the occupancy regulations for schools to guarantee 20 square feet per student in a classroom. Had this regulation been in place at the Our Lady of the Angels School on the day of the fire, the number of students initially trapped by the fire would have been nearly one-third fewer. Furthermore, the jury proposed monthly fire drills at schools and new fire safety training for school employees led by the CFD Fire Prevention Bureau.5

NFPA REPORT

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) also conducted a high-profile investigation into the school fire and released its findings in January 1959. The NFPA report, investigated and produced by Chester I. Babcock and Rexford Wilson of the NFPA Fire Record Department, forcefully stated that the loss of life could have been prevented if the school had conformed to the NFPA Building Exits Code. Although Chicago Fire Commissioner Quinn argued that the principal reason for the loss of life was the delayed alarm to the fire department, the NFPA report blamed the fatalities on inadequate exits. The NFPA investigators reported that the school’s exits were not properly enclosed and did not have sufficient exit capacity for the number of students within the building. The report also noted that most of the classrooms lacked the two remote exits recommended by fire safety standards. The NFPA report also faulted combustible interior building materials, inadequate fire detection and alarms, and poor housekeeping and fire evacuation practices on behalf of the school employees. The report’s summary stated that the deaths were “an indictment of those in authority who have failed to recognize their life safety obligations in housing children in structures which are ‘fire traps,’ ” and asserted that “school and fire authorities must take affirmative actions to rid their communities of such blights.”6 Despite these condemnations, criminal negligence or liability charges were never brought against the city of Chicago or the Archdiocese of Chicago.

FIRE PREVENTION FOR SCHOOLS

Even before the official investigations and findings were released, the school fire had an immediate influence on fire prevention efforts for schools. In Chicago, Fire Commissioner Quinn posted firefighters at all public and private schools considered to be in bad condition. Shortly after the fire, Quinn also pledged to push for regulations that would require sprinkler systems and fire alarm boxes in all public buildings. Following the release of the findings of the Cook County coroner’s jury and the NFPA, Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago City Council retroactively amended the city’s building code to require automatic sprinkler systems in all schools that contained wooden floors and joists and were two or more stories tall. The city of Chicago also implemented the coroner’s jury’s recommended requirements regarding school fire alarms, exterior fire alarm boxes, and monthly fire drills, specifying that all drills be witnessed by representatives from the fire department. The original compliance deadline for schools to implement these changes was set for December 1963, but logistical and financial constraints brought about a one-year extension. By December 1964, however, all public and private schools in Chicago had enacted the new fire protection requirements.

OTHER U.S. REACTIONS

School fire safety also emerged as a civil priority elsewhere in the United States in the aftermath of the fire. In New York City, Fire Commissioner Edward Cavanagh ordered the immediate inspection of the city’s more than 1,500 school buildings. Eighteen schools in New York City were closed within days of the school fire because of fire safety violations.

In 1959, the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) was motivated by the school fire to conduct a series of tests investigating fires in school buildings with open stairwells. In fact, the very first paragraph of Operation School Burning, the official report on the tests, directly referenced the school fire.7 The tests were conducted between April and June of 1959 and involved a systematic analysis of fire protection methods for open stairwells in school buildings. The researchers tested the effectiveness of automatic sprinklers (both partial and complete sprinkler systems), fire curtains, and roof vents in preventing the spread of flames and other products of combustion during fires. The testing also analyzed the usefulness of automatic smoke and heat detectors in and around the stairwells.

More than 150 live fires were set during testing; each test measured a different combination of fire protection methods and environmental conditions inside the school. In the end, the testing revealed that most of the fire safety methods investigated, including partial sprinkler systems, fire curtains, and roof vents, did not adequately limit the spread of the fire’s flames, heat, smoke, and toxic gases. Only the complete sprinkler systems were successful in limiting the spread of the products of combustion and in extinguishing or containing the fire. The tests also determined that automatic smoke and heat sensors, unless placed directly in the fire-origin area, did not detect the fire environment in a timely fashion—the fire conditions in a school would be too far advanced before all of the students could successfully evacuate the building following the sounding of the alarm.

Another finding from the LAFD’s tests involved the smoke conditions inside the test building. Because of the thickness of the smoke and the speed at which it spread, the published report emphasized that smoke was the most serious threat inside the building during a fire. The report asserted: “Smoke can be the critical factor in defining life safety in schools,”8 a statement that reinforced a tragic lesson learned during the school fire, when dozens of students who were never threatened by flames suffocated because of smoke inhalation. The report’s emphases on the threat of smoke during school fires and on the importance of further studies involving smoke movement and characteristics were reiterated throughout the fire service, including in an article about the tests in Fire Engineering, which declared, “We are not solely concerned with flames reaching pupils. They are in just as much peril from smoke and incandescent gases.”9 In fact, when the LAFD continued its research into school fires in 1960 and 1961, smoke was once again designated as the “principal hazard.”10

RELATED: Tragedy at School Made Others SaferConstruction Concerns: Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, Part 1 | Part 2

To better address the lessons learned from the Our Lady of the Angels School fire and the LAFD’s school tests, the NFPA revised the Building Exit Code (NFPA 101), later renamed the Life Safety Code, to speak to inadequacies in school fire safety. The NFPA also conducted a national poll of fire departments in 1960 to measure changes involving school fire safety in the year following the Our Lady of the Angels School fire. A majority of the fire departments reported that their communities had implemented new fire safety standards and practices for their schools during the previous 12 months. In many communities, these new fire safety efforts included increased fire inspections and improved fire drill practices and procedures. The NFPA estimated that more than 16,500 school buildings had undergone major life safety improvements in 1959 alone. These changes contributed to major life safety improvements in schools, as NFPA statistics indicate that no school fire in the United States has killed more than 10 people since 1958.

FIRE SAFETY IN SCHOOLS TODAY

However, despite the national attention to school fire safety brought about by the Our Lady of the Angels School fire and the significant life safety improvements instituted in public and private schools during the years following the tragedy, fire safety in contemporary schools is still far from ideal. Five decades later, there are no federal life safety codes or standards governing U.S. schools. Codes and standards for schools and other buildings are enacted only at the state and local government levels, with no national requirements for adherence or uniformity. A number of organizations, both public and private, produce and advocate fire and building codes and standards, but these recommendations are without the force of law unless they are adopted by state or local governments.

The fire and building codes and standards most frequently adopted into law by state and local governments are prepared by one of two organizations: the International Code Council (ICC) and the NFPA. The ICC publishes its recommendations in the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Fire Code (IFC), whereas the NFPA’s Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) contains many of that organization’s key recommendations. Although the codes and standards produced by the ICC and the NFPA cover the same general topics and occasionally even reference the other organization, they are different enough to further amplify the lack of uniformity for fire safety in schools throughout the United States. Nevertheless, to varying degrees, they each reflect and address lessons learned from the school fire.

In terms of fire protection systems, the recommendations from the ICC and the NFPA involving fire alarm systems for educational facilities are particularly strong. The IBC, the >IFC, and the NFPA Life Safety Code each require the installation of manual fire alarm systems in new and existing school buildings with limited exceptions. The IFC, for example, requires that manual fire alarm boxes be installed every 200 feet and within five feet of all entrances/exits. Although there are exceptions to these recommendations involving extensive heat and smoke detectors and automatic sprinkler systems, they are so restrictive that the presence of manual fire alarm systems is all but guaranteed in schools governed by these codes.11 These requirements are a distinct improvement over the Our Lady of the Angels School, where fire alarms were installed only in one wing of the school building.

Regarding automatic sprinkler systems, the IBC, the IFC, and the NFPA Life Safety Code each require sprinklers for new educational facilities in all fire areas greater than 20,000 square feet and in every portion of the building below the exit level; sprinklers are not required when every classroom has an exterior exit door at the ground level. For existing educational facilities, however, the NFPA Life Safety Code requirements for sprinklers are far more lenient. Portions of existing schools below the exit level can be sprinklered or separated from the rest of the building with fire-resistance rated construction materials. Furthermore, while the NFPA Life Safety Code requires sprinklers in areas occupied by students that are below the exit level in existing schools, the code allows for exceptions if windows are present and if the jurisdiction’s code authority approves of the lack of sprinklers.12 Considering that fire authorities and experts believed, even in 1958, that the school fire could have been immediately extinguished had automatic sprinkler systems been present in the basement stairwell, where it originated—a belief reinforced by the LAFD tests—it is unfortunate that the presence of sprinklers is not more strictly required in new and existing educational buildings.

Aside from fire protection systems, the ICC and the NFPA also address school fire safety in terms of the design and construction of school interiors. For instance, the IFC and the NFPALife Safety Code require fire-resistance-rated construction materials such as interior wall and ceiling finishes that limit flame spread. Both codes also state that walls separating classrooms and corridors in new school buildings must have a one-hour fire-resistance rating, although the NFPA Life Safety Code recommends only a half-hour fire-resistance rating for existing school buildings. Further influenced by the school fire, during which smoke funneled up an open stairwell and poured into exit corridors, the codes also advocate enclosing stairways to varying degrees. The IFC requires enclosures for stairways that connect two or more stories, and the Life Safety Code also states that all vertical openings in new schools must be enclosed. For existing school buildings, however, the code is fairly relaxed; it allows for a number of exceptions for stairway enclosures when the stairs serve only two floors.13 Just as with the automatic sprinklers, the codes for stairwell enclosures fall short of thoroughly addressing some of the lessons learned from the school fire.

In addition, exits and safe egress from educational facilities are covered at length in the ICC and NFPA codes and standards. Both the IFC and the NFPA Life Safety Code handle issues of occupant load by requiring 20 square feet per occupant in a classroom. Further addressing occupant load issues, the IFC sets the maximum occupant load for rooms with only a single exit at no more than 49. In terms of exit access travel distance, the IFC states that classroom occupants should not travel more than 200 feet to exit a school (or 250 feet when sprinklers are present). The NFPA Life Safety Code sets the maximum travel distance at 150 feet (or 200 feet when sprinklers are present) for new and existing educational facilities.14

Although these codes attempt to remedy a key problem from the overcrowded Our Lady of the Angels School, one code addressing egress effectively highlights the deficiencies in current fire and life safety codes and standards for schools in the United States. An exception to Section 1027 of the IFC (“Means of Egress for Existing Buildings”) states that “Means of egress conforming to the requirements of the building code under which they were constructed shall be considered as complying means of egress if, in the opinion of the fire code official, they do not constitute a distinct hazard to life.” With no uniform federal codes and standards for school fire safety, code authorities and state or local governing bodies often have too much discretion in determining fire protection levels for schools under their jurisdiction. Unfortunately, such circumstances can allow political or financial interests to carry more weight than actual fire safety needs.

 

•••

 

The Our Lady of the Angels School fire is widely credited with bringing overdue attention to the fire safety concerns that existed in U.S. school buildings during the 1950s. The fire and the ensuing investigations and tests contributed to a major overhaul of fire safety codes and standards for schools. However, although the updated codes and standards represented undeniable improvements, even to this day they put forth only a minimum level of ideal school fire safety. Thus, while this single fire truly made U.S. schools safer, it should also serve as a spur for further reform. Continuing efforts to ensure the safety of all our nation’s schoolchildren may provide some consolation for those who still grieve the victims of the Our Lady of the Angels School fire.

Endnotes

1. The historical descriptions of the Our Lady of the Angels School; the December 1, 1958, fire; and the subsequent investigations are based on the following:

  • Babcock, Chester I and Rexford Wilson, “The Chicago School Fire,” Quarterly of the NFPA 52:3, (January 1959):155-175;
  • Cowan, David and John Kuenster, To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1996); and
  • Robert J. Quinn, “Tragedy in Chicago,” Fire Engineering 112:1 (January 1959):30-36.

 

2. Initial investigations by the Chicago Fire Department, the Chicago Police Department, and other organizations led investigators to suspect arson. A 13-year-old former student confessed, in 1961, to starting the school fire, after he was linked to more than 10 suspicious fires in Cicero, Illinois. The boy later withdrew his confession, and a Cook County Family Court judge found the child not guilty of setting the school fire. In the subsequent decades, at least one other well-publicized confession was refuted. Fifty years later, the case is still open, and the cause of the fire remains undetermined. See Robert Wiedrich, “Clears Boy, 13, in School Fire He Confessed,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 14, 1962, 3.

3. Quinn, 33.

4. Cowan and Kuenster, 154.

5. “Act on Fire Jury’s Verdict,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 8, 1959, 1.

6. Babcock and Wilson, 175.

7. Los Angeles Fire Department, Operation School Burning (Boston: National Fire Protection Association, 1959), 5.

8. Ibid., 31.

9. Jack Lincke, “What Happens When a School Burns?” Fire Engineering, 112:11, November 1959, 1044.

10. Los Angeles Fire Department, Operation School Burning No. 2 (Boston: National Fire Protection Association, 1959), 34.

11. See 2006 International Building Code, Chapter 9; 2006 International Fire Code, Chapter 9; and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2006 Edition, Chapters 14 and 15.

12. Ibid.

13. See 2006 International Fire Code, Chapters 7 and 10, and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2006 Edition, Chapters 7, 14, and 15.

14. See 2006 International Fire Code, Chapter 10, and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2006 Edition, Chapters 14 and 15.

ADAM GROVES is the archivist and metadata librarian at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, the state fire academy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has an M.S. in library and information science from the University of Illinois and a B.A. in history from Ohio University.

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