Tragedy at School Made Others Safer
Pages from the Past
—Wide World Photos.
Nobody knows how many children have attended schools with improved fire safety as a result of the fire that burned over the second floor of Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago on December 1, 1958.
We do know that the 95 children and nuns who lost their lives in this fire did not die in vain. As a result of this tragedy, thousands of schools throughout the country were inspected more closely than ever and life safety codes and ordinances strengthened. Every school in Connecticut was inspected within 30 days after the Chicago school fire.
Although the school had wooden stairs, it passed an inspection the previous October because, Building Commissioner George Ramsey explained, the school was built before the adoption of a Chicago ordinance requiring steel stairs in enclosed stairwells. There were three wooden stairways and a fire escape to the second floor.
Factors in fire spread
The wooden stairs, a delayed alarm and a 2-foot-deep cockloft between the second-floor ceiling and the roof were judged to be the major factors in the rapid spread of fire that caused the large loss of life. The building, of brick and wood joist construction, was built in 1903 and remodeled in 1951. The walls were mainly plaster on wood lath with acoustical tile ceilings.
Janitor James Raymond was returning to the school from adjacent church property between 2:20 and 2:25 p.m. when he noticed smoke and flames in the area of a basement stairwell in the northeast corner of the school. Raymond told a coroner’s jury that he rushed to the basement and told two boys emptying baskets to leave.
He said he then ran to the rectory and told a housekeeper to call the fire department. He then ran back to help at the school. At 2:42 p.m., Fire Alarm Operator Bill Bingham transmitted a still for 3808 West Iowa Street, which was the rectory address. The main entrance to the school was half a block around the corner at 909 North Avers Avenue.
Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn was in his office at City Hall when the joker in his office tapped out the still alarm at 3808 West Iowa Street for Engine 85, Truck 35, Squad 6, Battalion 18 and Patrol 6.
“Within a few seconds, another call was received by the alarm office from another woman who reported a fire in the girls’ washroom in Our Lady of the Angels School,” Quinn said in an article written for the January 1959 issue of Fire Engineering. “This was followed by another call from a woman who reported a fire in the stairwell of the school and stated children were trapped on the second floor.”
— Wide World Photos.
Investigators concluded that the fire started in the northeast stairwell where the janitor first saw flames. It was said that test and homework papers were in the area and a roll of tarpaper or lining felt was found there after the fire.
As the alarm operator was transmitting box 5182 at 2:44 p.m., Engine 85, the first company to arrive, radioed for a full box and asked that all available ambulances be sent to the fire as a great number of children had jumped from second-floor windows.
Fire alarm sent 10 fire department ambulances and, upon being notified by a fire dispatcher, the police sent over 70 cars with stretchers to the school.
When fire alarm informed Quinn about the reports from the scene, the commissioner decided to respond. He was just putting on his coat when he heard the joker tap out the second alarm, which had been ordered by Chief Miles Devine of the 18th Battalion when he reached the school.
Teacher sounds alarm
Quinn told how Pearl Tristano, a fifth-grade teacher, smelled smoke between 2:35 and 2:40 p.m. She notified another teacher in an adjoining room who unsuccessfully tried to find the mother superior. In the meantime, Miss Tristano led her class to safety and then sounded the interior fire alarm about 2:42 p.m. The pupils on the first floor evacuated the school as though it were a drill.
On the second floor, fire conditions rapidly built up to tragedy. In room 212, 27 fifth-grade students died there with their teacher. Many of the children were found at their desks with their heads bowed and hands folded in prayer.
The men of Engine 85, the first-in company, split into two groups. One group stretched a 2 ½ -inch line into the school and the other raised the ladders carried on the engine.
“A few moments after, Truck 35 arrived and they also began raising ladders and catching children in life nets,” Quinn wrote in the article for the January 1959 issue of Fire Engineering. “Squad 6 arrived at almost the same time and the squad men took over the life nets, which permitted truckmen to concentrate on opening the roof and raising ladders.
RELATED: From January 1959: Incorrect Address Causes Delay at Chicago Fire | 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
Fire on second floor
“The officer in charge of Engine 85 had no trouble in locating the seat of the fire, which was in the rear stairwell at the northeast corner of the U-constructed school. He realized that the fire had a tremendous start and had already reached the second floor.
“While the men of Engine 85, assigned to life saving were helping with ladders and life nets, water was being poured into the burning stairwell in hopes of cutting the volume of fire. It was only a matter of minutes before the firemen realized it would be impossible to rescue each person individually. Acting under Devine’s orders, the firemen began dropping children into life nets and on the sidewalk below. Devine realized that a broken arm or leg would be better than burning to death. This order resulted in the saving of many lives.
“It was a matter of two or three minutes, at the most, before box alarm companies arrived,” Quinn continued. “The first engine on the box response stretched two 2 ½ -inch lines with fog nozzles. It entered the front stairwell of the building in hopes of cutting the fire down and pushing it, the hot air and gases, back into the stairwell to enable the trapped children in the classrooms to escape behind the protective fog. While these men fought their way to the top of the stairs, truckmen were swinging axes as fast as they could to get the roof open.
“It was then that Devine ordered the 2-11. It was also at this time that the fatal blow, which snuffed the life from the children and nuns, struck.”
The roof directly over the burning stairwell collapsed and brought down the ceiling of the second-floor corridor.
“This sent a blast of superheated air and gases through the building which snuffed out every ounce of life from those still caught in the building,” Quinn reported. “It also knocked firemen, attempting to reach the second floor with their hand lines, down two flights of stairs. Those that could regained their feet and again tried to make the second floor. Two firemen were sent to the hospital for treatment after they were blown down the stairs.
—Wide World Photos.
“Just before the roof fell, a number of firemen had managed to get into the building by means of the fire escape on the rear. They assisted one class down the stairs, but when the roof collapsed, it was impossible to get back into the second floor by means of any rear entrance.
Goes to fifth alarm
“All this had taken place while I was on my way to the fire.” Quinn continued, “When about a mile away, I heard Chief Devine order a 5-11 on box 5182. He had skipped the usual 3-11 and 4-11 and had jumped directly to the 5-11. I knew that the fire must be of great volume and I was already beginning to wonder how a fire could get such a start in a school occupied by some 1300 persons.
“Arriving at the scene, I could see at a glance that the still, box and 2-11 alarm companies were working, throwing water into the building on four sides. Truckmen were on the roof performing their duties there. There were two hand lines going up the front stairs and I immediately went into the stairway. In my 30 years as a fireman, I have never seen such thick, dense smoke pouring from a building under such pressure.
“The men were doing everything they possibly could. I climbed to the second floor of the burning building and tried to make it to the corridor. It was impossible. The heat and smoke was too much for anyone, but the firemen were still trying to push the fire back with fog. We had to back down because of the heat, but we kept trying. We didn’t know what the situation was in the classrooms on the second floor.
Pupils dead at desks
“Water was being thrown into the building by hand lines, high pressure wagons and the new water tower. The Snorkel was able to push the fire out of the roof and make it possible for us to get into the classrooms on the north side of the building. Division Marshals Anthony Pills and Robert J. O’Brien, Deputy Marshal James Bailey, Chief Marshal Raymond J. Daley, Deputy Marshal Harry Mohr and myself made our way into the classrooms and found the children, some still seated at their desks. All of us, veterans of more than 30 years, had never witnessed a sight so terrible.
“Daley then called for an additional two trucks and two squads to be sent to the scene to aid the 40 pieces of fire equipment already there.
“We had little trouble in fighting the remaining fire and I struck out the 5-11 at 4:19 p.m., less than two hours after the first alarm.
“The fire had started in the stairwell in the northeast corner of the building and was confined there until it reached the second floor. A class B fire door on the first floor prevented fire from involving the lower half of the building, the building,” Quinn explained.
Fire in cockloft
“Upon reaching the top of the stairwell, it traveled down a cockloft just above the hallway. I believe that the fire had already gotten a good hold in this cockloft when it was discovered on the second floor.
“The fire alarm system was sounded and the children, some not realizing it was the real thing, began to file into the hall. The children in the front classrooms on the second floor were able to escape down the front stairs, thanks to heroic efforts on the part of the teachers. About the same time, fire in the cockloft dropped into the hallway through two registers in the ceiling of the corridor. This forced the children in the rear classrooms back.
“Many were struck by panic, some jumped and others were rescued by firemen. When the fire had reached enough volume to cause the roof to fall, it was the end.
“Many persons have said a fire door on the second floor would have been the answer, but I believe that the cockloft running above the 107-foot corridor is what enabled the fire to travel where it did. A fire door would have certainly helped,” the commissioner added.
— Wide World Photos.
“The big question about this terrible fire is why and how it happened. Testimony at the inquest has revealed a 20-minute delay in notifying the fire department. This is certainly a basic reason why 95 persons are dead today.
“Over 160 persons were rescued by members of the Chicago Fire Department. This is certainly an indication of a magnificant performance by the members of the responding companies.
“The day after the fire,” Quinn wrote, “I called each and every member of the still and box alarm companies into my office and interviewed them. All gave me their own account of what happened and what each did during those First few minutes. All had one common statement to make: ‘We tried.’ As fire commissioner I can ask no more of any man.”
A blue-ribbon jury impaneled by Chicago Coroner Walter McCarron investigated the fire and made the following recommendations:
- Install approved automatic sprinklers in all schools and equip systems with water flow detectors and alarm devices.
- Enclose all vertical passageways with noncombustible construction.
- Remove all transoms over doors or replace transom glass with wired glass and nail the transoms shut. (Advice now is to enclose transom area with material providing a fire resistance equal to that of the corridor walls.)
- Install automatic-operating building alarm systems that will alert occupants and the fire department.
- Extend the public fire alarm system to all schools.
- In locales where there is no city fire alarm system, a conspicuously marked alarm control or a fire telephone should be placed at the school entrance and connected directly to the fire department over leased telephone lines.
- Full first-alarm apparatus and manpower response to all school alarms.
- Enforce the Chicago fire prevention code relating to the proper number and type of approved fire extinguishers properly distributed in schools.
- Subdivide hallways over 300 feet in length with swinging smoke barrier doors.
- Make it illegal to block or wedge open any fire safety doors.
- Convert gas lights used for exit indication to electric lights.
- Install automatic heat or smoke detection units at intake of exhaust fans and discharge of air supply fans.
- Prohibit nailing of screens over schoolroom windows.
- Limit schoolroom occupancy to 20 square feet per pupil.
- Correct all fire hazards even though they are not specifically covered by ordinance.
- Train school personnel in fire safety.
- Require monthly fire drills without advance notice.
- Provide proper wastepaper disposal.
- Require that all exit doors open in the direction of exit travel.
- Cover all combustible trim and acoustical materials with fire-retardant paint.
- Provide that all legislation relating to fire safety in schools be retroactive.
City Council action
In January 1959, less than two months after the fire, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that included these life safety requirements:
- Automatic sprinklers must be installed in school buildings of less than fire-resistive construction if they are more than one story high.
- A fire alarm master box must be placed within 100 feet of the main entrance to every school higher than one story.
- The fire alarm system in each school must be tied in to the master box.
- Monthly fire exit drills must be held in every school and they must be supervised and witnessed by fire department personnel.