|It was the worst thing I have ever seen or ever will see
-- Robert Quinn
Chicago Fire Commissioner
In my sixty years there have been many days. (22,162 according to this calculator.) The vast majority are wholly forgotten, while most of the rest -- both good and bad -- have faded over the years to murky shadows in the dim recesses of memory. But there are a notable few that stand out crystal-clear, in sharp relief as if chiseled in granite, days that will remain with me un-eroded until the day I die. December 1st, 1958, is one of those days.
I was nine years old. I came home from school that wintry-cold afternoon to the big, brown-bakelite Philco radio perched atop the Kelvinator in the kitchen blaring breathless reports of firefighters rushing to the scene of a school fire on Chicago's near west side. The fire, uprated to 2-11 alarm, quickly escalated to 5-11, the highest category. Calls had gone out for all available ambulances. The early reports were confused and horrific; as newsmen got a clearer understanding of the story, the reports gradually became less confused, but far more horrific.
The Our Lady of the Angels School, at the corner of West Iowa Street and North Avers Avenue, was a U-shaped structure. The north wing, where the fire started, was originally built as a church in 1903 and expanded to include a school in 1910. The south wing, an existing building on the site, had been converted to classrooms in 1949 and a connecting annex section was added in 1953, completing the U-shape. The two wings were of wood joist construction. The buildings consisted of an "English" basement, partially sunken with the floor 4 1/2 feet below ground level, then two stories with twelve-foot ceilings above that, so that the sills of the top story windows were about twenty-five feet above grade. Approximately 1200 to 1300 students were attending the school at the time of the fire.
As the day wound down and students and staff prepared for the 3:00 dismissal, a fire broke out in some combustibles stored at the bottom of the northeast stairwell near the boiler room. It burned undetected for perhaps fifteen minutes to half an hour or more before being noticed.
About 2:30 p.m., two students who had been sent to the basement to empty trash returned to room 206 and reported to their teacher that they smelled smoke. The teacher, Miss Pearl Tristano, consulted with Sister Mary Geraldita Ennis, the teacher across the hall in room 207 of the north wing. Sister Mary ran to the principal's office in the south wing to alert her, as she was the only one authorized to sound the fire alarm, but found she was elsewhere in the building filling in for a sick teacher. Sister Mary then returned to her room and she and Miss Tristano evacuated their classes to the church next door. By then the smoke in the second floor corridor of the north wing was at head level. After leading their students to safety, Miss Tristano returned to the school and flipped one of only two fire alarm switches that served the entire school, which were ordinary light-type switches, unmarked, and located six feet above the floor. The fire alarm system was internal only, and while it alerted the the rest of the school to the danger, it did not communicate with the fire department.
The school janitor testified that he was returning to the building at about the same time when he saw smoke in the alleyway by the school and ran to the boiler room where he found the fire in progress. He then ran to the parish house next door and directed the housekeeper to call the fire department. Her call, possibly delayed for reasons not fully explained, was received at the fire department at about 2:42 p.m.
At about the same time, the fire department alarm office received the first of about fifteen other telephoned alarms, none of which came from anyone in the school building. A passing motorist on North Avers Avenue saw smoke coming from around the outside door to the rear stairwell of the north wing. He stopped his car, and since there was no fire alarm box in sight, rushed into a small neighborhood grocery store just north of and adjacent to the school and asked for a telephone. On being told that there was no public telephone, he said "I wanted to report a fire in the school!" and rushed out to try to find a telephone somewhere else. The store proprietress followed him out and went
toward the school. She saw no commotion or unusual activity inside but on approaching the doorway to the rear stairway she saw a tongue of flame coming from over the door. She then ran back to her store and telephoned the fire department over her private telephone. This call was made at approximately 2:43 P.M. She was told, "Help is already on the way." On immediately returning to the. school she found children at open second story windows calling for help.
NFPA report: The Chicago School Fire (pdf)
In addition to the delay in calling in the fire, further delays occurred when initial reports called in the wrong address, the rectory at 3808 W. Iowa Street, instead of the school itself which was at 909 N. Avers Street, around the corner and about half a block away. Although parts of the complex fronted on Iowa Street, the northeast stairwell where the fire was underway was at the far corner of the complex and not visible from Iowa.
2:41:30—Fire call for 3808 Iowa Street
2:43:20—Same address as above
2:43:30—Same address as above
2:43:40—Fire call for school
2:43:42—Three more calls for rectory
In addition, two more calls were received before 2:44 p.m. which gave the correct school address. Within the next 15 minutes, seven additional calls were received, two of these requesting ambulances.
Fire Engineering Magazine: Incorrect Address Causes Delay at Chicago Fire
At the initial call, a standard response to a telephoned alarm was dispatched — one engine, one ladder truck, one rescue squad and a battalion chief. Firefighters arrived at the scene at 2:44 and, after determining the correct location of the fire, found smoke pouring from the windows in the north wing, students crowded at windows and some already jumping to the gravel and pavement below. A six-foot iron gate cut firefighters off from the courtyard between the two wings of the building, where they could see children crowded at the second-floor windows. They had to resort to using a ladder as a battering ram to break it down. The fire, which had already been bumped to a 2-11 alarm fire due of the volume and nature of the calls being received, dispatching additional men and equipment to the scene, was immediately escalated by the battalion chief on the scene to a 5-11 alarm, the department's highest classification.
|The second floor of the north wing. The cross marks the origin of the fire in the northeast stairwell. The dashed line marks the area of ceiling that collapsed. There were doors at the west end of the corridor, but not the east, nearest the fire. The annex, added after 1949, had a fire door where it connected to the older section, in compliance with the newer code. Although the door on the second floor was initially propped open, someone closed it early in the fire's progress, preventing the fire from spreading into the annex and south wing.|
The fire, which had smoldered for some time before breaking out of its point of origin, had eventually built up enough heat to shatter a nearby window. The influx of fresh air from outside fueled a rapid expansion of the fire up the open stairwell. Wooden, well-varnished stairs, a rubberized paint coating on the walls, and ample wood trim in the stairwell provided generous fuel for the fire. The lack of automatic smoke hatches to vent heat and smoke to the exterior allowed them to build up and spread through the path of least resistance, into the second floor corridor which, unlike the first floor, was unprotected by any fire doors to the stairwell. Vents in the ceiling allowed flames to enter a shallow attic space above the corridor.
Even before the fire alarm was sounded in the school, students and teachers discovered smoke entering their rooms through cracks around the doors and open transoms. Attempts to escape through the corridor were driven back by smoke and heat. And in the smoke-filled corridor there was no way to tell which direction, if any, led to safety and which led into the teeth of the fire. Teachers closed doors, attempted to seal cracks, and tried to calm their students while they awaited rescue.
The assistant custodian, with the help of a priest, raised two extension ladders to the windows outside room 208, adjacent to the stairwell where the fire was rising, but they were too short to reach the window sills. Even so, about twenty-five students were able to lower themselves to the ladders and were saved. Others jumped to a roof covering an entrance to the basement. But nine students and their teacher still remained in the room when the fire broke through and flashed over. All died.
The fire was spreading swiftly now. Students in room 209 reporting hearing a whoosh and saw flames roaring along the corridor ceiling through the glass transom above the door. Some students were now jumping to the ground, risking injury or death as the fire department arrived and began to erect ladders. Civilians had gained access to the connecting annex and were pulling children out of the burning room through an adjacent window. Glass transoms above doors shattered from the heat and flames poured into the classrooms.
Rescue operations by fire department personnel consisted primarily of catching pupils and in throwing all available ladders up to windows as fast as manpower would permit. Since Engine 85, first in, had the recommended five man complement, it was possible for the officer to divide his men. While part of the crew laid in a 2-1/2-inch hose line, the remainder used the engine's 24-foot ladder and roof ladder to start rescue operations on the north side of the north wing. Ladder Company 35, first in, on seeing children at windows of the south wing, started rescue operations from that part of the building. Rescue Squad 6, first in, helped ladder the building and broke out life nets.
NFPA report: The Chicago School Fire (pdf)
As the fire spread, the task of the firefighters became desperate. With flames closing in on the children still waiting for rescue, firemen began to furiously drag the students through the windows and drop them to ground. The risk of injuries or even death they might suffer in their falls was deemed a better fate than the certain and horrible death that awaited them in the flames. Firefighters reported seeing children's white shirts begin to turn brown from the heat. The clothes of many of the children dropped to the ground were already burning. Smaller children, unable to climb over the high sills of the windows, were pulled back or pushed aside as desperate students tried to escape the approaching flames.
And then the roof collapsed.
It was only a matter of minutes after the first fire companies had arrived at the school, that death struck 90 persons still trapped in the classrooms. The roof of the building, directly over the burning stairwell collapsed, causing the ceiling of the second floor corridor to fall in. This sent a blast of super-heated air and gases through the building which snuffed out every ounce of life from those still caught in the building. It also knocked firemen, attempting to reach the second floor with their hand lines, down two flights of stairs.
Fire Engineering Magazine: Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn, Tragedy in Chicago
Eighty-seven children and three teachers, all nuns, died on the day of the fire. Another 100 were injured. The five hospitals nearest the school, the closest just a mile-and-a-quarter away, enacted disaster response plans and dealt with the crush of burn victims and those injured in falls as best they could. Sixty-five victims were sent directly to the morgue.
The reported 160 people rescued by firefighters in the short eleven minutes between the arrival of the first units on the scene and collapse of the roof are the most ever rescued by the Chicago fire department in a single-building fire. But for the firefighters who responded to Our Lady of the Angels, the 160 saved were far outweighed by the ones who weren't. Many in coming years suffered symptoms of what we might immediately recognize today as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. But 1958 medicine had no conception of such a thing. People were expected to just suck it up and go on about their life, and to the extent they were able, the firemen largely did. But if there is a common thread in the stories related by the families and friends of many of the firefighters who were there that day, it is this: they did not talk about Our Lady of the Angels.
By some accounts, the fire shattered the sense of community in the neighborhood. Families moved away, it was said, and children transfered to other schools and didn't come back when the new Our Lady of the Angels school -- then hailed as the safest and most up-to-date in the city -- was opened in 1960. The school operated for 40 years before being closed in 1999 after the Our Lady of the Angels church was closed and its congregation was merged into another parish.
Over the weeks and months following the fire, five more children died of the burns they suffered in the fire, bringing the total of victims to 95. William Edington, Jr., 13 years old at the time of the fire, died as a result of his burns on August 9, 1959, nine months after the fire. He was the final victim of the Our Lady of the Angels school fire.
Everything we needed to know to prevent the loss of life at Our Lady of the Angels we knew before December 1st, 1958.
We knew that stored combustibles were a fire hazard that should be kept to a minimum
We knew that stairwells needed to be enclosed and fire doors installed.
We knew that stairs needed to be made of non-combustible material.
We knew floors, walls, and ceilings needed to be constructed of material that, if not outright fire-resistant, at least spread flames at the slowest possible rate.
We knew that transoms created dangerous passageways for the spread of fire and ought to be eliminated.
We knew that sprinklers could effectively suppress or extinguish a fire and prevent the loss of lives and property.
We knew that concealed spaces created hidden passageways for fire to spread.
We knew that heat detectors, tied to direct activation of fire alarms and a direct signal to the fire department allowed detection of fire before anyone had become aware of it.
We knew that fire alarms, promptly activated, allowed people critical time to escape danger.
We knew that early reporting of a fire permitted firefighters to get to the scene before the fire could get out of control.
And so much more.
Not only did we know all these things, most of these things were mandated by the fire codes in effect at the time. If Our Lady of the Angels had been built after 1949, if would have contained most of these life-saving features.
But the original section of Our Lady of the Angels was first expanded for use as a school in 1910, and because the fire code in effect in Chicago and in Illinois in 1958 only required a school to meet the fire code in effect at the time it was built, the school only had to conform to the school fire code of 1905. And it did. The school had been inspected just a month before the fire and found to be in compliance. With the 1905 code.
These sad facts led Percy Bugbee, president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to lament, "there are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded."
Still, in the months that followed the disaster, sweeping changes took place across the country. According to an NFPA survey, 68% of all communities across the United States initiated fire safety improvements after the Our Lady of the Angels fire, including implementing mandatory exit drills, undertaking more inspections, employing fire-resistant construction techniques, and installing fire protection and alarms.
Some 16,500 older school buildings in the United States were brought up to code within one year of the disaster. Additionally, an increased number of laws requiring schools to hold fire drills throughout the year passed.
Locally, ordinances to strengthen Chicago's fire code and new amendments to the Illinois state fire code were passed. And the Chicago City Council passed a law requiring that a fire alarm box be installed at schools and other public assembly venues.
International Association of Fire Fighters: Legendary Chicago Fire Fighter Dies
But perhaps the most significant change to come out of the tragedy at Our Lady of the Angels was a change in attitude. As was discussed in our previous installment about the hotel fires that took place in 1946, a dispute had long festered between municipal officials and public safety advocates as to whether the government had the power to mandate that a building built under an older code be compelled to conform with newer regulations. The school system, built around locally-controlled school districts supported by local taxpayers, and private and parochial schools financed by private funds, was one of the last hold-outs among classes of public buildings accommodating large numbers of people. The horrific death toll of Our Lady of the Angels effectively ended that resistance and the contention that such a requirement constituted an illegal ex post facto law under Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution fell to the wayside. No community wanted to see the kind of headlines emblazoned across the front pages of their newspapers as greeted Chicago on December 2, 1958.
The response to the Our Lady of the Angels fire in the regulatory arena had a profound effect on school safety that continues to benefit us today. Arthur E. Cote summarized the response to the disaster in 2003:
The reaction to the fire was more rapid, more sweeping, and arguably more effective than the reaction to any other single fire in U. S. history. NFPA codes and standards were quickly revisited and stricter requirements for interior finish and exiting were established. An April 1959 issue of the Journal of American Insurance caught the mood of the country at the enforcement end, noting in an article subhead, "U.S.A., aroused by the Chicago lesson, is overhauling its school buildings as never before."
In the nearly 4 decades since the Our Lady of the Angels fire, there has never been another school fire killing 10 or more people. In recent years, no incident has even come close. In the period from 1994 through 1998, grades K-12 averaged one civilian death per year -- a typical annual death toll for schools since at least 1980.
Few lessons have been leaned as thoroughly as the ones from the Our Lady of the Angels incident appear to have been learned.
Arthur E. Cote, Organizing for Fire and Rescue Services
And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from some bored bureaucrat sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman (or school board or church), but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit (or low taxes). They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again. We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along. That's how regulation come to be.
Previous installments of How Regulation came to be: