Monday, December 01, 2008

Johnny Yen's Chicago Stories: The "Our Lady Of Angels" Fire

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in Chicago history, the "Our Lady of Angels" Fire. On December 1, 1958, a swift-moving fire, that had been quietly burning inside the walls of Our Lady of Angels, a parochial school on Chicago's west side, erupted to kill 92 students and three nuns who were teachers. It was one of the most notorious-- and until a few years ago, most mysterious-- events in Chicago history.

The "Our Lady of Angels" was not the worst fire in Chicago's history-- the Iroquois Theater Fire killed more than five times as many people. It was not the worst school fire in U.S. history; a gas explosion in a school in New London, Texas in 1937 killed nearly three times as many people. Yet, unlike those fires, the Our Lady of Angels fire is still discussed. Survivors of the fire meet regularly and even have a website.

Growing up in Chicago, the fire was discussed in the neighborhoods I grew up in. There were a lot of things that adults would say that I found incredible-- that teachers led students back into the burning school, that rather than leading kids out of the school, the nuns who were teachers had kids sit and pray rather than leave the school and other things. In time, I discovered that these things were either out and out fictions or grossly distorted. But there was a good reason that there was so much mystery surrounding the fire: the Chicago archdiocese had suppressed information about the fire.

In 1996, two Chicago authors, David Cowan and John Kuenster, published a book about the fire, "To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire." Some excellent research cleared up the mysteries, exonerated some people-- and accused one.

There were a number of mysteries about the fire. How did it start? Why was it so severe?-- the school had passed a fire inspection just weeks before. Why had the death toll been so high?

It turned out that there was a "perfect storm" of events that caused it; if any one of these things hadn't happened, the fire would not have been disasterous.

The fire investigators were able to find the source of the fire quickly. It had started in a garbage can in a small room in the basement. The fire had burned up waste paper in the garbage can until it used up the oxygen in the room. The heat eventually probably cracked the basement window and the rush of new oxygen into the room caused the fire to flare, igniting a wall. The fire then travelled inside the wall, spreading silently, working its way up to the "cockloft." A cockloft is a small space between the ceiling of the top floor of a building and the roof.

The school, which was about 40 years old, had been reroofed several times. This seemingly inconsequential fact had deadly results. Normally, when a building gets a new roof, the old one is stripped off. To save money, the archdiocese had had the roofers just add each layer on. If the old layers had been stripped, the fire would have continued upward and through the roof. With its path upward blocked, the fire now turned downward-- into the classrooms of the second floor of the building.

The fire had also worked its way onto the two stairways of the second floor. A petroleum based coating on the stairs provided fuel-- and created a noxious, deadly smoke. It was this smoke that gave the teachers and students in the second floor of the building the first notice that there was a fire in the building.

In several rooms, smoke began to pour into open doors and transoms. The nuns walked into the hallway, only to be turned back by the thick smoke. They closed the doors and realized that their only escape route was through the windows of the classrooms-- a twenty foot drop onto concrete.

Within minutes, the fire began to burn through the ceiling. To add to the pandemonium, light fixtures began to explode from the heat. It was then that the nuns had to deal with panic. The classrooms were packed; it was the height of the baby boom, and many of the classrooms had 50 to 60 students. As flames and heat began to pouring into the classrooms through the ceilings, students began to panic. The fire department had been called, but the fire had been going too long. There were only minutes left. And there was one more part of the "perfect storm" of the disaster-- the courtyard to the building, which was where the firefighters needed to get to, was blocked by a locked gate.

As a teacher, after reading this book, I wondered, at times, how I would have handled this situation if I'd been faced with it-- fifty-five or sixty terrified kids, a fire pouring into the room, the escape route blocked, the only way out a twenty foot drop onto concrete. The firefighters were on their way. At this point, it was vital that the teachers keep order; when the fire department arrived, it was going to take quick and precise attention to instructions. It was absolutely vital to keep control of the situation. For one nun, the solution was to have the kids at their seats praying. In the context of the events, it made sense.

When the first firefighters arrived, within minutes of the call, another part of the perfect storm unfolded. The person who had called in the fire had given the address of the Our Lady of Angels church, not the school. Even the minute or two it took to get the trucks around the corner were vital. Fires were already getting into classrooms-- and children were jumping from windows.

The younger children on the first floor were able to escape easily; their teachers quickly led them out. With all but a couple of exceptions, the children on the upper floors, who were in fourth through eighth grades, were trapped. As the firefighters first arrived at the scene, they were faced with a horrific sight: children leaping out of second story windows, some in flames, onto concrete. Worse, the firefighters' access to the courtyard they were leaping into, the only escape route, was blocked by a locked iron gate. With the help of neighborhood men, the firefighters used a ladder as a battering ram to break down the locked gate. Still more precious seconds were lost. Even worse, firefighters "laddering" the building were horrified to discover that many of the ladders were too short to reach the windows.

Cowan and Kuenster's book had one scene that haunts me. Chicago firefighter Richard Kamin, a World War II vet, managed to get a ladder up to the windows of Room 211, an eighth grade room. As he got to the window, he saw a sight that horrified him; a burning room with dozens of kids press against the windows, screaming. He saw one girl-- Michelle Barile-- crawling over the children at the window. When she reached the window, the six-foot-two 220 pound Kamin grabbed her by the waist, pulled her through the window and dropped her on the ladder below him. He then began pulling kids through the window-- all boys, because he could grab them by the belt and pull them through the window. Each time he turned, he could see, to his horror, that the kids' shirts were turning brown from the heat. He knew from experience that the room was about to "blow over"-- to be enveloped in flames. The air in the room was literally about to explode. He grabbed another five or six children, dropping them on the ladder, hoping they'd catch hold of it. He figured a broken bone or two was better than death. Then suddenly, the room erupted. As the oven-like heat seared Kamin's face, he saw the rest of the children in the room collapse "like a bunch of burning papers." He was able to grab one last kid, who was literally on fire. There was nothing more he could do. Kamin descended the ladder with the burning kid under his arm, the flames shooting up under his firefighters coat, burning his arm. When he got to the bottom of the ladder, he handed the kid to another firefighter, who slapped the flames out with his gloved hands.

24 children died in Room 211.

Kamin went on to work many years more for the Chicago fire department until he retired.

When the firefighters got the fire under control and got into the building, they were faced with an apocalyptic scene. They entered rooms and discovered dead children stacked in piles like firewood. There were dead children sitting at their desks. In one room, one of the nuns had huddled a group of children together and tried to shield them from the fire with her body. The picture to the right, of firefighter Richard Scheidt taking the body of ten year old John Jajkowski out of the building came to symbolize the horror of the fire.

Once the fire was out, there were many questions. The first was, how had it happened? And secondly, how was the fire so bad, in a building that had just passed a fire inspection.

As mentioned, the fire was a perfect storm of bad luck. The reroofing, which had led to the roof being several inches thick; the construction of the building-- though it had a brick exterior, most of the inside was made of wood and plaster. It was extremely flammable. Through quirk of design, the fire had ample fuel and time to burn undetected. It was grandfathered from a simple requirement that would have prevented the disaster: fire sprinklers. One of the consequences of the fire were laws passed in Chicago and municipalities across the country requiring sprinklers in every school, even old ones.

But the question remained: how did the fire start?

In 1961, there was a series of arson fires in the town of Cicero, which is just west of Chicago. A boy was caught setting a fire and when questioned the Cicero police tied him with the other fires. He'd had a history of setting fires-- he was, they ascertained, a pyromaniac. The student was an eighth-grader at Cicero Public Elementary School. Cicero police officer Ron Richards began investigating and discovered that the boy had been a student at the Our Lady of Angels school in 1958.

In the meantime, there were several more arson fires near the boy's home; one of which had fatalities. The police brought him in for questioning again. He admitted setting several of the Cicero fires. Finally, he admitted-- he had set the fire in the trash can that had been the cause of the Our Lady of Angels tragedy. He drew a map of the room and pinpointed the exact location that the fire had started, something that was not public knowledge.

Since he was a juvenile, his name was not released to the public. There was a hearing in family court under Judge Alfred Cilella. The boy recanted his admission. Cillela found the boy not guilty, but years later admitted to Cowan and Kuenster that he had known the boy was guilty. He knew that one of the families of the dead children would probably have murdered him if he had found him guilty.

According to Cowan and Kuenster, the boy eventually set another fire, for which he was sent to reform school. He ended up in the military, serving in Vietnam, and moved to California. According to various sources, he died a few years ago, still denying he'd set the fire to the end.

Since the publication of Cowan and Kuenster's book, survivors of the fire have begun talking and meeting. The fire not only took lives, it destroyed a community. In Chicago in the old days, neighborhoods were called by the name of the neighborhood Catholic church-- you told people you lived in "St. Ben's" (St. Benedict's), "Rita" or "Our Lady of Angels." With the death toll so high, the loss so profound, families began moving out of the neighborhood; there was too much pain associated with it. Urban blight set into the neighborhood as the old families moved out. Today, it is a gang-ridden high-crime ghetto.

When I got my teaching certification in 1998, I took a job at a Chicago Public School in a rough neighborhood on Chicago's west side. I discovered that I was driving right by the old church, which still stands (a new school was built; the archdiocese closed it in 1999 and today the rebuilt building houses a charter school). I also frequently passed the Illinois National Guard Armory that a mass funeral was held for many of the fire's victims.

In 2001, I was working as a substitute teacher in Evanston, the district my then-wife Cynthia worked in. I was hoping to get a full-time job there, but with the economic down-turn after 9/11, the district, like most districts, was cutting positions, not adding to them. I was getting frustrated. I realized I was suffering from depression. With the encouragement of my wife, I began seeing a counselor, Tom W., who I had worked with some years before.

One day, I got a call from sub center; Mr. W., a teacher I'd subbed for before had requested me as a sub. His mother had passed away, and he was going to be away for several days. He wanted someone he had confidence in to be there.

Since one of the issues I was dealing with was doubt in my professional abilities due to my failure to get a full-time teaching position, this was one of the nicest things I could have heard.

When I got to the school, I discovered that a lot of the staff was out for the funeral of Mr. W's mother; it was a particularly close-knit school. I was also informed that there was going to be a fire drill that day.

As the day went on, and I went through the paces with the kids, I went over fire drill instructions with them. I began discussing the importance of listening carefully for directions, citing the Our Lady of Angels fire, where minutes and then seconds counted. One of the kids mentioned that Mr. W. had a brother who survived a famous school fire in Chicago. Then it hit me-- Mr. W. and my counselor Tom W. had the same last name, a name that wasn't a common one.

As teachers returned from the funeral of Mr W., a couple of them who knew me stopped and told me that when they told Mr. W. that Mr. Yen had been able to sub for him, he expressed relief. Something odd, they told me, had happened; Mr. W's brother asked "Mr. Yen? Johnny Yen?" Yes, they had told them. Did he know him? Mr. W.'s brother had replied yes, he did. When they asked him how he knew me, he told them politely that he was not at liberty to discuss it. But I knew then: Mr. W's brother was my counselor Tom. And Tom, I realized, had survived the Our Lady of Angels fire.

When I got home, I left a message for Tom; I realized that he might have to reschedule our next appointment, which was supposed to be in a couple of days (he did).

When we had our next meeting, it was me who had the questions. It fascinated me; here I was, the one suffering from clinical depression, some of it brought on by things that happened in my past, and the guy helping me deal with it had survived one of the most notorious tragedies in Chicago history.

Tom, it turns out, was a first-grader that day. Since the lower grades were all on the first floor, there were no fatalities or injuries among them. When the alarm sounded, the kids were brought out. The teachers quickly saw that a horrific human tragedy was unfolding. They did not want the kids witnessing it. They were told to walk home-- and not to look back.

Did he look back, I asked?

Yes. It looked like the whole world was on fire.

In the course of discussing it, and discussing my situation, we realized that rehashing old hurts was not necessarily the best way to deal with them. Sometimes, it's best to just leave things behind. Around that same time, I made peace with my father, and peace with myself.

A couple of months later, Cynthia and I separated, and eventually divorced.

A few months after that, I got a call from an old friend; she got me an interview in the school district in Cicero, Illinois where she worked (and still works) and I got a job as a sixth grade teacher.

My first year was in a brand-new building that had been built to replace an older building. However, enrollment began rising as newer younger families, many of them latino, moved into the town, and the district decided to keep the old building, right next door, open. They called the new building Cicero West and the old one Cicero East.

At the end of my first year there, they announced that there was going to be a restructuring of the district. They were opening an enormous new junior high school, and all of the seventh and eighth graders in the district would be going there. Furthermore, they were dividing up the buildings-- Kindergarten through third grade would be in the newer Cicero West building and fourth through sixth would be in the old building, Cicero East. I moved my classroom to the building next door.

In the meantime, I realized that some of the street names around the school were ringing a bell. I dug up my copy of "To Sleep With the Angels." I discovered why the addresses were so familiar; they were all around the school I worked at. And then it hit me. I asked an administrator what "Cicero East" was called before there was a "Cicero West." It was, he told me, called Cicero Public Elementary School. I realized, with a chill, that I was working at the school that the kid who set the Our Lady of Angels fire was attending when the police realized he was the perpetrator.

Years ago, a woman who survived the fire as a kid, wrote a book about her experiences entitled "The Fire That Will Not Die." The fire remains, in Chicago lore, giant. Something about the fire, which occurred two and a half years before I was born, haunts me. I've got the strangest feeling that there is still one more weird connection to the fire that will manifest itself in my life. It remains to me, and many more Chicagoans, the fire that will not die.


SkylersDad said...

What an amazing and terrible story JY. It reminds me of a home town tragedy that I heard of from the mining days back up in Idaho Springs. I will have to research and tell you all about it someday.

Patrick Kissane said...


you'll remember talking to me about the day they closed the church I attended as a child. You later taught in the charter school that was associated with it. This neighborhood was just a few miles from the West Side neighborhood you describe in your post.

The tragedy of that day lingered on the West Side for years and the pain continues today. We'll have to discuss it sometime.

Thanks for watching the house over the holiday. We have much to be thankful for...

LegalMist said...

What a tragic and interesting story, and well-told. Thanks for sharing.

Mnmom said...

God, how tragic and haunting. I'm crying while putting my kids' faces on the faces of the victims. Hearing the nuns tell the little ones to walk home and not look back has me sobbing. Thank you for sharing this story - you got me.

Mathman6293 said...

My mom sometimes talked about the fire. She was in the hospital that December with peritonitis. I guess she was in one of the west side hospitals (Garfield Park probaably). Her stories always frightened me.

lulu said...

I don't know if you remember this, but I posted about this fire a year or so ago in a meme. The question was something about fears, and I have had a HUGE fear of fire ever since watching the movie about Our Lady of Angels during my brother's cub scout meeting when I was about. I still have vivid images of the movie, and even more vidid ones of the narrator's voice, as he described his panic at not being able ot find his son.