The Our Lady of the Angels parish operated a school for more than 1,600 children on the corner of West Iowa & North Avers on Chicago's west side. The campus contained several buildings which featured classrooms for kindergarten through 8th grade. The largest building on the campus held classes for 2nd - 8th grades.
The main school building housed most of the students and teachers. The 2½ story school was constructed in phases beginning in 1910, 1949 & 1953 of ordinary construction. A daylight basement was also visible from street level. The interior of the building consisted of wood and plaster. Stairwells were finished similarly with fire doors located on the first floor only. All classrooms featured cellulose fiber ceiling tiles along with a transom window above classroom doors. The school's wood finishes had been coated many times over the years with flammable petroleum based waxes. The building had also been remodeled several times in it's lifetime.
The photo is one of the only pictures of the school prior to the fire
model of the school as it would have been in 1958
Plot plan of the school
The 1949 Chicago Municipal Code required that all schools be constructed of noncombustible materials and be equipped with fire protection mechanisms such as sprinklers, fully enclosed stairwells, and fire doors. The code did not require retroactive action for preexisting buildings.
Due to the inability of codes officials at the time to force the updates onto older school building, an older ordinance from 1905 was used. The building had six exits on the first floor and one fire escape from the second. 8 soda-acid fire extinguishers were distributed throughout the building, although they were mounted over 6 feet high on the walls. No sprinklers or smoke detectors were installed in the building. The south wing of the building did have a manual fire alarm system which only rang within the school. The unmarked switch for the alarm was also high out of reach on the wall. There was no ability to transmit an alarm directly to the Fire Department.
Interestingly enough, the building had passed a fire safety inspection several weeks earlier.
Classroom 210 at the Our Lady of the Angels School
first floor of the north wing
2nd floor of the north wing
On December 1st , 1958 around 2 pm the students would have been finishing lessons in preparation for departure for the day. Sometime between 2 & 2:20, a fire started in a cardboard trash barrel at the foot of the basement stairs in the rear of the school. The fire was said to have burned for an estimated 15-30 minutes undetected. During this time, the fire would have produced super heated smoke that traveled vertically up into the stairwell. The fire door located on the first floor would have prevented any fire and smoke travel into the first floor, however, there was no fire door on the second floor. Within the stairway was also a pipe which led directly to the cockloft of the school.
As the heat began to rise, the windows within the stair tower broke allowing a continuous supply of oxygen to feed the fire. With the heat building in the cockloft, the fire soon reached flashover. With no barrier between the stair tower and the second floor, super heated toxic gases began to permeate the hallway and classrooms.
diagram of the basement northeast corner stair well where the fire originated.
During this time, the students and nuns within the building had no idea of the fire rapidly extending up the stair tower. Two students from the second floor were sent to dump a waste basket in the basement around the same time as the fire would have been in the growth phase. When they smelled smoke they returned to their teacher to report it.
The school janitor, James Raymond, was walking towards the school and noticed smoke coming from the school. The first phone call to the fire department was made at 2:42 pm at Mr. Raymond's urging.
Conditions on the second floor of the school were rapidly becoming deadly as the heat and smoke had completely filled the main hallway. Eventually the fire alarm in the south wing of the building was activated, causing the students and staff to begin evacuating. All of the occupants of the 1st floor and 2nd floor of the south wing were able to escape. Classroom 205, which had the only fire escape, was able to evacuate as well.
A view of the second floor hallway after the fire.
The remaining classrooms on the 2nd floor experienced punishing conditions which caused the transom windows over the classroom doors to fail. Smoke and fire began to flow into the classrooms leaving the windows the only means of escape. The height of the windows to the ground below was nearly 25 feet. Several students who were able jumped from their classes, unfortunately other children were unable to reach the windows due to their size.
Members of the Chicago Fire Department initially were sent to the parish rectory and began to deploy hose lines. Seconds after their arrival, firefighters realized the fire was within the school. Companies were greeted with smoke pouring from the openings of the school and children screaming by the windows.
The center of the buildings allowed for a small courtyard which was gated and locked. The locked courtyard caused delays for firefighters to get ladders into the throat of the building.
Conditions after the units from the CFD arrived.
The fire continued to burn out of control on the second floor and the cockloft. Eventually the structural elements gave way and a partial collapse of the roof occurred.
The majority of the fire operations were focused on portable ladder rescues outside the building. Some firefighters did make an attempt to enter the second floor for suppression. Due to the desperate situation, crews had to literally grab children and toss them to the ground.
The fire was extinguished in less than 2 hours with great loss of life. 92 children along with 3 nuns perished in the fire. Many of the students were found in the classrooms, some of which died at their desks.
a row of desks within a charred classroom on the second floor.
In the days after the fire, the community mourned and began to point fingers at who may have been responsible. Several people were assigned to investigate the fire and the role the building code played. Representatives from insurance, construction and fire protection industries reviewed the fire and information about the building. The group determined that the school was still legally bound by the 1905 city ordinance and not the 1949 Chicago municipal code.
A year later, the group announced more than 20 recommendations for improving fire safety in schools. The ideas included retroactive fire protection systems including sprinklers and smoke detectors. Construction improvements would include enclosing stair wells and vertical passages. Fire barrier doors would also need to be installed. In addition, fire alarm systems would be required to transmit the alarm to the fire department as well as locally within the building.
Occupancy regulations were also considered as the school was filled over capacity at the time of the fire. The new standard was for 20 square feet per student. Fire drills were also mandated.
the group reviews the devastation after the fire.
The NFPA also conducted its own investigation into the fire and concluded the fire may have not been so deadly if the school had followed the NFPA building exits code. Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn argued the conclusion. His own opinion was more towards the delay in notifying the fire department.
The report cited the improperly enclosed exits and exit capacity for the amount of occupants. Classrooms were also noted to have lacked the two remote exits recommended by the standard. Another feature reviewed included the use of combustible building materials along with poor housekeeping by the staff. Inadequate fire detection, alarm systems and poor evacuation practice was also noted.
The summary of the report included this very powerful statement. 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', school and fire authorities must take affirmative actions to rid their communities of such blights.
bodies of victims lie in the morgue awaiting identification.
"There are no new lessons to be learned from this; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded."
Percy Bugbee, president of the National Fire Protection Association
School fire safety became extremely important due to the publicity the tragic fire obtained. Officials across the nation began asking questions about the schools in their communities. New York Fire Commissioner Edward Cavanagh ordered the inspection of all schools located in the City of New York. Several schools were closed after the inspections.
Although there were code improvements to schools, there still is no federally mandated uniform code across the country. Codes still need to be formally adopted by each individual jurisdiction. The most common codes adopted are from the the International Code Council and the NFPA.
the actual report from the fire inspection conducted in October of 1958.
Interesting video on the role behavior played in the fire
This project is not only dedicated to the 95 children and nuns who perished in the fire, but also all of the first responders who dealt with the pain of what they witnessed on the afternoon of December 1st, 1958.
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Public - 11/21/16, 1:56 AM