Incorrect Address Causes Delay at Chicago Fire

Incorrect Address Causes Delay at Chicago Fire

Coroner’s “Blue Ribbon” Jury sifts facts of school holocaust in attempt to pinpoint cause and prevent future tragedies


DELAY in notifying the Chicago Fire Department reportedly was a contributing factor in the high death toll at the Our Lady of the Angels school fire. The original location given to fire alarm headquarters, for what later turned out to be the school, resulted in apparatus responding by a route which added to the delay. In addition, it was necessary to inquire at the scene of the stated street number to ascertain where the fire was.

At 2:42 p.m. on December 1, Fire Alarm operator Bill Bingham transmitted a “still” for 3808 Iowa Street. This turned out to be the church rectory, the residence of Rt. Rev. Msgr. Joseph F. Cussen, pastor, and his assistants. The school building is located at 909 North Avers Avenue, around the corner about a half-block distant. Parts of the school front on 3810-20 Iowa Street. It was reported to FIBE ENGINEERING that if the correct address had been given at the outset the first-in companies would have employed a different route to reach that location, with a normal running time slightly less than to the Iowa Street number.

Following the original phone call, a Hurry of calls was received, prompting Chief Operator Joseph Heddermun to transmit Box 5182, Chicago and Hamlin Avenues, about two blocks from the school. It is reported the local telephone company records show the following log.

2:41:30—-fire call for 3808 Iowa Street

2:43:20—same address as above

2:43:30—same address as above

2:43:40—fire call for school

2:43:42—three more calls lor rectory

Continued on page 34

Continued from page 31

Aerial view of fire shows U-shaped construction of school. Fire was confined to north wing School is located in closely built-up northwest side of the city

In addition, two more calls were received before 2:44 p.m. which gave the correct school address. Within the next 15 minutes, seven additional calls were received, two of these requesting ambulances.

The building was erected in 1903 as a combination church-school and expanded in 1910. It was of brick-wood joist construction, two stories in height with basement. The walls were mainly plaster on wood lath with ceilings of acoustical tile. Between the ceiling of the second floor and the roof was an attic or cock-loft approximately 2 feet in height. In keeping with the architectural style of the period, the rooms were large with high ceilings and wood trim.

After the present church was built in 1939, the entire building was converted to a school with 13 rooms. It was remodeled in 1951 and was considered to be in good condition.

Firemen search debris following extinguishment of blaze in hunt for bodies of victims trapped in second-floor classroomRoof collapse into classroom. Depth of char in portion of rafters indicates fire may hove been burning for some time

At the time of the fire it had an enrollment of 1,635 pupils, including a kindergarten of 120 children operating on double shifts; 1,200 children were in the fire building. The teaching faculty included 20 nuns of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and nine lay teachers, all women.

RELATED: From August 1977 Issue: Tragedy at School Made Others Safer |  From December 2008 Issue: Our Lady of the Angels School Fire: 50 Years Later | Construction Concerns: Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, Part 1 | Part 2

The fire is believed to have originated in a basement stairwell in the northeast corner of the building. It apparently extended up the walls into the cockloft and by the wooden stairs to the second floor where it mushroomed out into a 107-foot corridor, finished with acoustical tile walls and ceiling. This hallway served six classrooms of the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades. A closed fire door at the first-floor level prevented its extension on that floor and all children located there marched out safely. There was relatively little fire damage in this area.

Three stairways and a fire escape served the second floor. All of these are said to have been in good order.

Blue-ribbon jury

Coroner Walter McCarron impaneled a jury of outstanding experts to investigate the holocaust. Testimony to date is reported to reveal the following;

The stairwell where the fire is thought to have started is said to have contained test and homework papers. A roll of tarpaper or lining felt was also found at this point.

It was the practice of the school to dump waste paper in containers in the boiler room, This area was not involved in the fire due to closed wooden doors which connected to the stairwell. Heat for the building was by coal-fired steam.

Janitor James Raymond said he was returning to the school from other church property in the area between 2:20 and 2:25 p.m., when he noticed smoke and flames in the stairwell area. He rushed into the basement and ordered two boys emptying baskets to leave. He then ran to the rectory and told a housekeeper to call the fire department. He ran back to the school where he had several boys walk out on the fire escape to let down the counterbalanced lower section. He then broke open a door connecting a classroom to the corridor area and the fire escape to permit the pupils to escape. He also lowered a window and broke another to permit the children to breathe.

Destruction in second-floor corridor. Fire burned away or weakened roof beams causing collapse shortly after arrival of fire companiesMembers of Coroner's jury inspect stairwell where fire is said to have startedCutaway diagram of school wing Copyright Chicago Tribwu

—from WidWorld Photos

Coroner McCarron later stated that many of the children trapped in the building died from smoke suffocation. In one room 24 bodies were found, some still seated at their desks.

Commissioner Quinn at first thought arson was involved as heavy black smoke was noted in the early stages of the fire. He later said this may have been due to the burning of the tarpaper. He attributes the heavy death toll to the delayed alarm.

He recounted how Miss Pearl Tristano, fifth-grade teacher, smelled smoke between 2:35 and 2:40 p.m. She notified another teacher in an adjoining room who hunted unsuccessfully for the mother superior. In the meantime, Miss Tristano led her class to safety and then sounded the interior fire alarm.

In accounting for the lack of fire-resistant stairs, Building Commissioner George Ramsey said the school was constructed before the Chicago stairway ordinance was adopted. At present, the requirements are for steel stairs and enclosed stairwells.

Press reports stated that Sergeant Drew Brown, Chicago Arson Squad, theorized the fire smouldered at least one hour before breaking out. Chief of Fire Prevention Robert J. O’Brien believes the fire was burning for at least 20 minutes before the fire was detected. He said the entire school had been inspected last October and was found to be in order. He recommended the following changes be made in the school fire regulation requirements :

  1. Enclose all stairwells
  2. Install rate-of-rise fire detectors
  3. Provide more fire escapes
  4. Make all stairs fireproof
  5. Provide more exit doors
  6. Abolish all transoms
  7. Install automatic sprinklers

Dale K. Auck, director, Fire Prevention Division, Federation of Mutual Fire Insurance Company, and a jury member, recommended that all schools be prohibited from storing clothing collected in drives within the building.

He would also require that janitors be instructed in fire prevention techniques and would fine or imprison anyone wedging open fire doors. He believed that all present open stairwells should be enclosed with low-cost materials which would give at least 15 minutes of fireretarding protection. He further believes that automatic heat and smoke ventilators should be installed over stairwells.

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