Soon afterwards we would be also facing the threat of the Cuban missle crisis, and our practices would swich to air raid drills for missle attacks...
It was one of the Worst School Fires In U.S. History
Was It Arson?
Although the cause has never been officially determined, all indications point to arson. A boy (age 10 at the time, and a fifth grader in room 206) later confessed to setting the blaze, but subsequently recanted his confession. He was more afraid of confessing to his mother and step-father than to the police.
The boy confessed to setting numerous other fires in the neighborhood, mostly in apartment buildings. In his confession, he related details of the fire's origin that had not been made public and that he should therefore not have known. While there was strong evidence that he was indeed the culprit, neither he nor anyone else was ever prosecuted, at least in part because the catholic judge in the case felt he should protect the Church.
Officially, the cause of the fire remains unknown.
The fire started in the basement sometime between 2:00 and 2:20 that cold December afternoon, in a cardboard trash barrel at the foot of the northeast stairwell. The fire burned undetected for an estimated 15 to 30 minutes, gradually filling the stairwell with super hot gases and smoke. In the intense heat, a window at the foot of the stairwell shattered, giving the smoldering fire a new supply of oxygen. The wooden staircase itself burst into flames and, acting like a chimney, sent super hot gases, fire and smoke swirling up the stairwell. The first floor landing was equipped with a heavy wooden door which effectively blocked the fire and heat from entering the first floor hallway. But the second floor landing had no doors - the fire, smoke and heat were free to roam the second floor halls at will. As the fire was climbing (consuming) the stairway, a pipe chase running from the basement to the cockloft above the second floor false ceiling gave the superheated gases a direct route to the attic, where the temperature rapidly rose higher and higher until it finally reached ignition temperature. Almost as though planning a coordinated attack, the fire swept through the halls of the second floor in the north wing of the school, and flashed through the cockloft above the classrooms. By the time the students and their teachers in the second floor classrooms realized there was a fire, their sole escape route (the center hallway) was all but impassable. For 329 children and 5 teaching nuns, the only remaining means of escape was to jump from their second floor windows to the concrete and crushed rock 25 feet below, or to pray for the fire department to arrive and rescue them before it was too late. Recognizing the trap they were in, some of the nuns encouraged the children to sit at their desks or gather in a semi-circle and pray. And they did - until the smoke, heat and flames forced them to the windows. But there were no firemen to rescue them. Some began jumping - others fell or were pushed.
Finally, firefighters arrived and began rescuing children from the second floor windows, but the hellish conditions in some of the classrooms had become unbearable, and children were stumbling, crawling, clawing and fighting their way to the windows, trying to breathe and escape. Many jumped, fell or were pushed out before firefighters could get to them. Some were killed in the fall, and scores more were injured. Many of the smaller children were trapped behind the frantic crowds at the windows, blocking any chance to escape through a window. Many of the little ones who managed to secure a spot at a window were then unable to climb over the three-foot-high window sills, or were pulled back by others frantically trying to scramble their way out. Helplessly, firefighters watched in horror as classrooms still filled with frightened children exploded in flames, instantly killing those who remained.
The first fire department units had arrived within four minutes of being called, but by then the fire had burned unchecked for as long as 30 minutes and was raging out of control. Also, they were delayed upon arrival because they had been incorrectly directed to the Rectory around the corner, and lost valuable minutes repositioning their trucks and hose lines after realizing the true location of the fire. The south windows of the north wing overlooked a small courtyard surrounded by the school on three sides, and a seven foot iron picket fence on the fourth side. The gate in the fence was locked -- firefighters could not get to the children at the south windows without first breaking through the gate. They spent a valuable minute or two battering the iron gate with sledge hammers and a ladder, before it finally gave way. Between the delayed discovery and reporting of the blaze, the fire-friendly school and the misdirection of the fire units, the firefighters arrived too late. Although they rescued more than 160 children from the burning inferno, many of the children they eventually carried out of the school that day were dead. Some of the bodies were so badly burned that they literally broke into pieces when firemen attempted to pick them up.
Eighty-seven children and three nuns died on December 1, 1958 as a result of the Our Lady of the Angels fire. Three more critically injured children died before Christmas followed by two more in 1959, the last one on August 9. In the end, 92 children and 3 nuns perished, bring the ghastly death toll to a staggering 95.
Our Lady of the Angels school passed a fire department safety inspection only weeks before the fire, because the school did not have to comply with all fire safety guidelines due to a grandfathering clause in the 1949 standards. Existing schools were not required to retrofit the safety devices that were required in all newly constructed schools. In the only positive outcome of the tragedy, sweeping changes in school fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide, no doubt saving countless lives in subsequent years.
But for the innocent victims of Our Lady of the Angels, it was too late.
God remember them and grant them Peace,
About the above photo, Fireman Richard Scheidt carries the lifeless body of 10-year-old John Jajkowski out of the fire-ravaged school soon after the fire is brought under control. The heart-breaking job of removing the young victims has begun.
This photograph became the defining image of the Our Lady of the Angels fire, seen around the world, and made into a moving fire prevention poster.
John was an accomplished musician - he played the accordion and sang in the boy's choir. He planned to be a priest.
Photo ©1958, Life Magazine
There will be a memorial Mass ,this Sunday November 30, 2008 at 2:30 P.M. at
Holy Family Family Church
1080 W. Roosevelt Rd.