Our Lady of the Angels School Fire – 1958

The particular horror of school fires is that in addition to the personal tragedy of each child’s death, the fire threatens the bond of trust whereby staff safeguard children in loco parentis. The fire that engulfed Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago challenged even that basic assumption, not because the staff failed in their duty, but because they behaved impeccably according to the rules laid down by higher, external authorities, and their devotion to those rules caused the deaths of 95 children and nuns. The catalogue of pre-conditions, circumstances and mistaken responses is so comprehensive it hardly seems possible that such a disaster was not foreseen. In the light of its aftermath, it feels like a human sacrifice.

US school safety procedures were established in 1949, and incorporated huge technological improvements learned during World War II. They were not retrospective. Our Lady of the Angels was built in 1910 and extended in 1939, and despite appearances it was a firetrap. Up to 14 coats of highly flammable varnish covered the wood trim of open stairwells, and only the ground floor (US ‘first floor’) had fire doors. A small trashcan fire smoldered in the basement then swept up the stairwell, trapping 329 children and six nuns upstairs and causing a ‘flashover’ into the ceiling space above them, which then ignited. Only Mother Superior was allowed to activate the fire alarm, and she could not be found. When finally the fire brigade was alerted, it went to the wrong address.

Two teachers tried independently to evacuate their classes; others obediently told the children to stay at their desks and pray for rescue. Nobody ‘did’ anything wrong. The catastrophe mushroomed out of goodwill and bad planning, and it’s a miserable kind of satisfaction that at least it led to the most comprehensive review of national safety codes America had ever enforced.

When was the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire: December 1 1958

Where was the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire: Iowa Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

What was the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire death toll: 92 children and three nuns died, and at least 120 others were severely injured with burns and broken bones sustained when jumping to safety. Although the school was officially blamed, forensic analysis concluded that, given the U-shaped building and the cumulative mistakes made (in good faith), it was a miracle that the death toll had not been higher.

You should know: There were many acts of courage and ingenuity. One Sister saved most of her class by blocking smoke and flames with books beneath the classroom door; and a parish priest was badly burned as he swung students from one blazing classroom window to another, incredibly, it took 1 h 25 min to control the fire after it was first noticed. The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago swiftly doled out individual compensation packages to avoid lawsuits.

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