Even though she struggles with memory loss, 94-year-old Constance Piscopo can remember when her son Frank and 91 other children and three nuns perished in the school fire at Our Lady of the Angels.
“It was a day of infamy,” she said.
The Elmwood Park resident still smiles when she speaks of Frank, her oldest and a 10-year-old fifth-grader when the blaze broke out.
“He was a little dickens,” she said.
She and about 75 other people came to Queen of Heaven Cemetery on Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of the Dec. 1, 1958, fire. It ravaged the Italian-American neighborhood around the school at Avers and Iowa, where surviving kids wound up going to as many as 17 wakes in a single night. For some, it led to divorces and depression and people leaving the church. And it resulted in sweeping changes in fire safety, including drills and improved construction, at schools around the world.
As she looked around the shrine where many of the victims are buried, she said, “I like to see the people that I know.”
Many of the heads that gathered at the graves are now gray. They listened as alumni members of the Royal Airs Drum and Bugle Corps–which lost three members to the blaze–played “Abide with Me” and “I’ll Walk with God.”
When firefighters and rescuers entered the school, “My brother was found at his desk with his head down. They were praying,” said Frank’s brother, Jerry Piscopo, 64, a kindergartner at the time of the tragedy. In Frank’s classroom alone, 27 kids died. The Piscopos also lost a cousin in the fire, Frances Guzaldo, one of the Royal Airs. “It was a huge blow to our entire family,” he said.
Afterward, “Everybody started moving out of the neighborhood,” said Jackie Lurye Borrelli, whose father Sie co-founded the drum and bugle corps. In those days, “Nobody ever got any counseling.”
Chuck Gerlach, 71, was an 11-year-old seventh-grader during the blaze. He remembered how his teacher, Sr. Mary Adrienne Carolan, helped her students escape. “She was at the top of the stairs as we crawled along the wall” through smoke, he said. “She was rolling the kids down the stairs” to get them out.
Serge Uccetta, who conducted the musicians at the cemetery Sunday, was also a 7th-grader. He escaped by climbing down a ladder a janitor placed at a window. He suspects that having a last name that began with “U” improved his survival odds because he sat in the last row, next to the windows.
He said he’ll never forget when it started. “The door started rattling” because of the heat, Uccetta said. When someone opened it, “Black smoke was everywhere. Everybody panicked.”
“Kids were pushing, screaming,” he said. “One kid jumped. He hit the ground and didn’t get up.”
Thirteen of his classmates died. Uccetta, 72, wound up working in aerospace engineering and banking. But to this day, whenever he goes into a school or new building, he said he asks himself: “What are the ways out?”
“For years, when I smelled smoke or heard alarms,” he said, “the adrenalin kicks in.”
Jerry Piscopo also scans everywhere he goes for exits. “Whenever I go in any public building, I’m always looking for other ways to get out,” he said.
Gerlach said he always gains strength and solace from gathering with other survivors. “You just don’t even have to say anything to each other” to explain your thoughts, he said. “It was very inexpensive therapy.”
At the base of the group gravesite at Queen of Heaven is a stone marker with the Blessed Mother and the inscription, “May the Angels Lead Them Into Paradise.” On Sunday, 61 years after the children from Our Lady of Angels had their last Christmas, the marker was decorated with a toy truck, a stuffed frog and a tiny Christmas tree.
WATCH: Steve Lasker talks to ABC7 about photographing the deadly fire 60 years ago