Editors note: Dec. 1, 2018, 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 Sept. 1, 2003.
More than 44 years later, the smell of smoke still sends some of them into a panic. Everywhere they go, they check for fire exits. Some have struggled with depression, sleepwalking or claustrophobia.
They lived through the horrific fire at Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels School on Dec. 1, 1958. It killed 92 children and three nuns, and put a knife through the heart of Chicago’s Italian-American community. The blaze destroyed families and marriages and brought silence to a West Side neighborhood of Italian lemonade stands and pizzerias. Every block seemed to have lost a child — or two or three.
It changed fire drills and safety codes throughout the country.
Today the internet is linking survivors and others affected by the fire. A book and documentary also have helped them reconnect.
The olafire.com website, created by Colorado resident Eric Morgan, has become a bulletin board that has allowed survivors to vent about their physical and mental scars from the blaze at the school at Avers and Iowa.
Morgan unveiled a message board in February, the day before WTTW-TV mentioned the website during the airing of the fire documentary “Angels Too Soon.”
“Interest exploded,” said Morgan, who became interested in the blaze at age 10, when he saw a famous fire-prevention poster featuring a photo of victim John Jajkowski. “Bunches of them found my website.”
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Back in 1958, before the days of crisis counselors and more widespread acceptance of mental struggle, many parents and teachers told the kids in the fire not to talk about it — that it would be better that way.
Some told survivors that God had taken his chosen angels — “the good ones.”
The book “To Sleep with the Angels,” by David Cowan and John Kuenster, charges that a boy at the school confessed to setting the blaze, but was never prosecuted.
Some survivors say the 1996 book and the 2003 documentary — which drew from the book — have enabled them to understand what happened that day.
Whether or not they filed lawsuits, survivors received little compensation for pain and suffering. Many families were reluctant to pursue litigation. The book attributes that to an era of conformity and submission to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, survivors want action from the Archdiocese of Chicago. A Web site petition asks the archdiocese to provide survivors with counseling.
Survivors also want the archdiocese to formally recognize the heroism of janitor Jim Raymond, who rescued many children, but whose reputation was stained when he was grilled about whether poor maintenance contributed to the blaze. The petition also asks the archdiocese to establish a “significant” memorial to the fire.
A top church official who met with survivors last Monday said their requests are under “serious consideration,” and Cardinal Francis George “is aware that we’ve been meeting.”
“We’ll take it back and give it serious consideration and do what we can, believe me,” said archdiocesan chancellor Jimmy Lago.
“This was a tragedy, and I think at the time, everybody was almost frozen into a place where they wanted to help, but they didn’t know how to help. . . . It’s clearly not a stigma anymore that you need help.”
Because of the clergy sexual misconduct scandal, “We certainly have a system in place for responding to the therapeutic needs and counseling for victims” of different kinds, Lago said.
As for Raymond, “We’ll try to make the point in some public way that the janitor . . . had no hand in it in any way, and in some ways, he was a victim, as well,” Lago said.
The petition also calls for measures requiring arsonists to register with law enforcement — as pedophiles do — and for the opening of juvenile arson records.
The survivors’ voices come across loud and clear on a website that bristles with emotion. Some survivors and relatives of the victims also shared their memories in recent interviews.
Matt Plovanich tried to prepare himself for death during the 23 minutes he was trapped in his classroom.
“The transom broke and the ceiling was on fire,” Plovanich recalled. “The globe light fixtures snapped because of the heat … the whole front of the classroom was just lit up like you wouldn’t believe.”
As time passed, the good air dwindled until “it was three inches on the bottom of the floor,” he said.
What does he remember?
“The tears, the screaming, the clawing. I had scratch marks all over me. The girls just screaming for their mother. The tears were just horrible and the screams were just horrible.”
Plovanich’s teacher, Sister Geraldita Ennis, “was like a captain going down with the ship. She was steadfast. She never wavered and she was an inspiration to us.”
“The room hit the flashpoint and just exploded,” he said.
He credits a priest, the Rev. Charles Hund, and Raymond, the school janitor, with rescuing his class.
“I hope to get some recognition for Jim Raymond, because he was much maligned,” Plovanich said. “He was the guy who actually came up with a key to open the room. The janitor kept trying to get inside the building” to rescue children until bystanders tackled him, Plovanich said.
Charlene Jancik dropped from a window and broke her spine and hip and wound up in a body cast from under her arms to the bottom of her hips.
“They told me if I tried to get up I could be permanently paralyzed,” she said. “I was 9.”
Jancik, president of the group Friends of OLA, wore her cast for 18 months and didn’t walk until the next summer.
Ellenann Wassinger credits her survival to ignoring her nun’s instructions to pray.
“I disobeyed the nun. I touched the doorknob. It was boiling hot. I just said ‘no’ and I grabbed the girl next to me and went to the window,” where she managed to escape.
“If I would have listened to the nun. . . the girls that were in the rows where I was were very badly burned. And I had to live with that from fifth grade to eighth grade, worried they thought ‘she should look like us.'”
“The one girl who sat right next to the window, she died because she sat there and put her pencils away.”
The surviving children faced memories of their dead friends in every alley and gangway where they played. One survivor, Chuck Gerlach, went to 17 wakes in one night. When survivors walked down the street, elderly women knelt before them and made the sign of the cross. Many felt awkward when they saw the parents of dead victims. Almost nobody talked about the grief that bathed the neighborhood in a permanent twilight.
Jancik remembers the mother of one of her dead schoolmates begging her for information about her daughter’s last words, saying: “‘Do you remember her, what she said?’ And she was begging me — ‘please, please, please’ and I didn’t remember her daughter and what she was doing, even though she was in my room. And I didn’t even go home and tell my mother, because you didn’t talk about those things.”
Many had invisible scars.
Plovanich became a sleepwalker. He walked out of the house, fast asleep. He punched holes through glass windows. Once, “My whole torso was out the window and I woke up to look three flights down and see glass falling on the sidewalk below.”
Plovanich blames that behavior on the fact he was trapped for 23 minutes.
“I really beat myself up on the fact I didn’t jump, and how could I be so passive and just let death come and take me?”
Wassinger checked herself in to a mental institution and was told she had post-traumatic stress. “I was on pills to get me up, to put me to bed, to make me eat. I would find myself going in closets and crying.” At 27 or so, “That’s when I had to start finally dealing with this. I always found myself feeling sad about two weeks before Thanksgiving. I started to hate Christmas.”
Linda Maffiola started having flashbacks to the fire when her son turned 3 1/2, the same age she was when her brother Joseph, 10, died in the blaze.
One time, she saw a school that resembled Our Lady of the Angels and thought she saw flames coming out of it — though she knew they weren’t really there.
Maffiola, who has helped organize survivors, didn’t know she had been at the school that day until her father told her. “Then I understood where these images were coming from.”
The website contains personal accounts of parents withdrawing, of blocks without playmates, of firefighters who were at the blaze who seemed to take their agonies out on their families.
“It destroyed the neighborhood,” Plovanich said. “It destroyed the people. The parents couldn’t cope. Divorces, all kinds of family problems happened.”
The website also draws comments of others from across the country. Some remember it; some weren’t born when it happened. They talk of how it frightened and touched them, or how the photos haunt them.
To this day, it affects survivors.
“I walk into wherever I go–a show or a restaurant or a concert — I know where every exit is,” Wassinger said. “I have a plan on how to get out.”
“I’m very aware of exits and escape routes and I’ve actually chosen schools because of gut feelings,” Plovanich said.
Survivor Mike Guzaldo lost two cousins in the fire from both his mother and father’s sides of his family–Frances Guzaldo and Frank Piscopo.
“I don’t make friends very easy,” he said. He wonders if it affects how he interacts with others.
When he saw Mel Gibson’s film about a burn victim, “The Man Without a Face,” “I couldn’t handle it,” Guzaldo said. “I had to walk out of the theater.”
For Maffiola, “I lost my brother as a three-and-a-half-year-old. The prism that I looked through was, if you loved somebody dearly, they’re going to leave right away. And that’s what I’m working on emotionally, to not run from relationships. I remember him real well. … He used to joke around and play with me and give me piggyback rides.”
“I am so happy that we are connecting in a healthy manner,” Maffiola said.
“This was such a tragedy. I get perturbed when people focus on the tragedy. Hey, there’s a lot of people who lived through this. Sixteen hundred kids were in school that day . . . there is life after death.”
“There’s healing to be done, and I think the time is now.”
“If I could get back from the archdiocese what I spent on therapy,” Maffiola joked, “Oh my God, I could buy another house.”
The website has led to about 700 contacts by survivors, friends and relatives, and those interested in the fire, Jancik said.
Patti Burda Neri was only 18 months old when her sister Beverly died in the fire at 13. The Web site has helped her find out more about her sister.
She heard from a friend of Beverly’s who described going to dances with her.
“I saw a little bit more of what she was like,” Neri said.
“After 45 years it gave us an opportunity to express our feelings,” Gerlach said. “It’s just phenomenal.”