Editor’s note: Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School on Chicago’s West Side. This story was originally published on Nov. 28, 2008.
It was a day when the lives of 92 schoolchildren were stolen in a place where their parents thought they would be safe: their school.
The inferno that consumed Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels on Dec. 1, 1958, opened a pit of sorrow that still seems bottomless.
The survivors have replayed those agonizing minutes in their minds countless times — and all the things that went wrong, increasing the body count. In the strong, silent ’50s, survivors, victims’ families and rescuers were urged not to dwell on the blaze.
God took the good ones, they were told. Get on with your lives.
But OLA alums have never forgotten the three nuns who died and classmates who never had a chance to get old.
at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt, where the names of the 92 children and three nuns will be read.
“I’m going to be at the mass to honor the kids that are not here, and the poor parents that suffered so greatly that day,” said survivor Matt Plovanich.
Our Lady of the Angels alums say something good came out of something horrific: The fire made schools safer. Sweeping changes in school design, materials and construction, as well as requirements for fire doors, sprinklers and fire drills, were put into place nationwide after the blaze.
They take some comfort in that.
“One of the positive things that came about was the review of building codes; more fireproofing, how [fire] drills were handled” and sprinkler requirements, said Annette Szafran, who was an eighth-grader when the fire struck.
Szafran was pulled to safety from a window by the Rev. Joseph Ognibene and parent Sam Tortorice. Szafran found her third-grade sister outside and they hugged, surrounded by mothers and fathers on the sidewalks screaming the names of their children inside. Some parents tried to storm the building, only to be driven back by flames, or tackled by police.
The fire destroyed the neighborhood around the school at Avers and Iowa. Families moved away. Some parents divorced. Children who survived didn’t want to go outside because mothers of children lost in the fire would stop and beseech them to recall their final minutes.
“Everyone knew someone who died,” Szafran said. “You couldn’t go to your neighbor and say, ‘I’m sorry you lost your son or daughter,’ because you might have lost your son or daughter. People didn’t know how to comfort each other.”
“Our neighbor’s very best friend was at the fire that day, and he said he was pulling kids out of his classroom. He saw his son at the window and said ‘Jump! Jump! I’m here’ — and his son didn’t jump. He died. How do you counsel that man, who saved the other children?”
“The amount of sadness in the neighborhood was just horrible, like a darkness had come,” Plovanich said.
The group Friends of OLA has created the James Raymond Scholarship for children of firefighters. Commemorative license plates have helped fund the scholarship, named for a janitor who rescued many students. Alums say Raymond’s name was besmirched when he was questioned about whether poor housekeeping contributed to the blaze. Raymond’s son, John, credits survivor Charlene Campanale Jancik, who passed away in 2003, as the driving force behind the scholarship.
About five years ago, alums began reconnecting because of olafire.com; a documentary, “Angels Too Soon,” and a book, “To Sleep with the Angels,” by David Cowan and John Kuenster.
The book charged that a boy at the school confessed to setting the fire, but was never prosecuted. He has since died, Kuenster said. (Many survivors were shocked when Cowan was charged with setting a 2005 fire at a storage building of St. Benedict Parish on the North Side. At the time, his wife attributed the incident to stress and alcohol abuse.)
Kuenster, a former Chicago Daily News writer, has written another book about the fire, “Remembrances of the Angels,” with new interviews with survivors, parents and rescuers.
“We should never forget something like this, but the kids who died and the people who are hurt and the children who are missed, there’s a great legacy from this, and that is that schools are a lot safer today,” Kuenster said.
After many survivors complained about a lack of psychological help, in 2003, the Archdiocese of Chicago offered 15 counseling sessions to survivors — more, if they needed them, spokeswoman Susan Burritt said.
Also Sunday, alums of an award-winning Chicago drum and bugle corps — which lost three students to the blaze — will commemorate their passing. The Royal Airs will perform at the Our Lady of the Angels monument at Queen of Heaven.
Survivor Ellenann Wassinger said she plans to attend the Sunday mass. “I just want to pay my respects. I lost a lot of classmates in my room — I think almost half,” she said. “I think it will help me.”
Wassinger said she struggled for years with depression and dreams of dead classmates. The fire stole “a lot of trust. . . . I don’t have any friends because I’m always afraid I’m going to lose them.”
John Raymond, another survivor, also will be at the mass. His memories are stirred when he hears schoolchildren at recess.
“If I hear a siren, and the kids screaming at the same time, it takes me back to the fire. I [go to the window or outside to] check on them.”
On Sunday, “I feel like I have to be there, just to honor my classmates that passed, and the ones that have gotten this far, as I have,” Raymond said. “Even though they’re dead, I’ve thought about them all my life. It’s where I should be.”