Our Lady of the Angels blaze. Chicago, 1958. Documents #1.

This post is mainly meant for english-speaking readers.

Tuesday, December 2, 1958.
Chicago Daily Tribune

School Fire; 90 die

90 hurt in Our Lady Of Angels blaze.
Probe oil like flare in building stairwell.
53 girls, 34 boys, and 3 nuns perish in mystery holocaust; police battle frantic parents.

Eighty-seven children, 9 to 14 years old, and three nuns were killed Monday afternoon in a fire which turned the upper floor of Our Lady of the Angels Catholic school at 909 N. Avers av. into a trap of flaming horror. Of the dead pupils, 53 were girls and 34 boys.

An estimated 90 others, including three nuns of the Sisters of Charity, which operated the school, and a janitor, were burned or otherwise injured. They were treated in seven hospitals.

The worst school tragedy in Chicago history resulted in scenes of undescribable grief at the school, which is around the corner from the church of the same name at 3808 Iowa st.; at nearby hospitals, and at the morgue where the victims were laid out for identification by parents.

There were anguish and heartbreak as parents screamed and struggled with policemen outside the burning building in midafternoon; as they searched for missing youngsters while firemen were probing the smouldering building; and as they identified the victims at the morgue.

20 minutes to go – Then disaster!

The horror of the blaze itself, which began at 2:40 p.m., only 20 minutes before the 1,200 pupils in the building would have left classes, was equally overwhelming. Witnesses saw children leaping from windows of the two story building; saw they appear at windows and then fall back. What could not be seen –the trap apparently closed by billowing and blinding black smoke and flame- was worse.

There was heroism by firemen who battled their way into the flames to bring out victims, some alive; by priests and nuns who led out pupils while the building was turning into an inferno; by a nun who appeared at a window and then died with her charges.

Horror stricken city and county officials and representatives of the Roman Catholic church began investigations of the blaze, seeking to learn how it started and how the children were trapped.

By Monday night, the following story of the fire had been pieced together:

The fire started with an oil type blaze in a stairwell in the northeast corner of the building –altho the school was heated by coal. It roared up the stairwell. Dense, black smoke suddenly poured into corridors as it spread to the ceiling. This occurred extremely rapidly. The stairwell must have been filled with flames by the time the fire alarm was sounded.

Dense smoke sucked into rooms

When the alarm rang, the doors of the classrooms were thrown open and the pupils and their teachers prepared to file out. The smoke rushed into the rooms “as if drawn by a gigantic draft.” It blinded the occupants, many of whom turned back and went to windows.

Some pupils were led out by teachers who had them hold hands. Others were rolled down stairways like logs. Others crawled in an air layer beneath the smoke. Many jumped from windows of were rescued by firemen from ledges.

But the flames swiftly closed a trap on others who had been unable to make their way from classrooms to the outside fire escape of the six other stairways from the second floor. Many fell victim to the smoke itself.

Fire, police, and building department officials began probing the ruins before they stopped smouldering for clews as to how the blaze started and spread. They said the school building had been inspected in October and no violations were found. The exits were adequate, they said, and the ceilings were or wood lath and plaster, without false ceilings.

Building Commissioner George Ramsey said he would begin a search of the charred building at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Coroner to pick jury of experts

Coroner Walter McCarron, at the morgue, said he would select a jury of 15 persons, composed of outstanding authorities on building construction and fire safety and also include some clergymen, to probe the tragedy.

The terrible blaze struck suddenly. One minute the school’s operations were going normally –or seemingly so- the only evidence of the impending catastrophe being flames, apparently with little smoke at first, coming from a window near the door at the northeast corner.

The next minute pupils and teachers were galvanized into action by the alarm sounded by someone inside the school. Outside, there still appeared to be nothing wrong, unless someone was standing so as to see the flames in the window. But inside the smoke trap was closing.

Then a few witnesses outside saw windows breaking outward from some force from within and children appearing at windows on the upper floor. Then a nun was screaming at a window: “We are trapped! We are trapped!”

Priests at the nearby rectory heard the screams and ran to help get the children out. The pupils on the first floor, which had the four lower grades, were led out in order. The upper floor, housing the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, was a smoked filled inferno.

The first fire department box alarm was turned in at 2:42 p.m. The first firemen arrived three minutes later to find pupils already jumping out of the windows.

Smoke had driven these children to windows. Some who had jumped lay on the ground. One child said she saw classmates fall as she went out a window. The heat at their backs was so intense that some children leaped toward ladders before firemen could place them. These pupils fell to the ground.

Despite the raging flames, firemen pushed desperately into the upper floor and began carrying out children.

Then the firemen tried to push back the flames while they searched for victims overcome by smoke. They began carrying out limp forms.

Huge crowd gathers

A huge crowd was gathering by then. Police lines were set up in a special plan. But parents began breaking thru the lines and rushing up to the building screaming. Scores fainted.

The first dead were brought out with the unconscious living and rushed to hospitals without any attempt to examine them at the scene. The dead later was sent to the morgue.

The first group of bodies was brought out while the blaze was roaring thru the top part of the building. After about one and one-half hours, the fire had been quelled sufficiently for the ghastly search to resume. Firemen then began finding bodies in groups, huddled in classrooms, crushed beneath part of the ceiling and part of a wall which fell. Some bodies were badly charred.

Grief is heartbreaking

Anguished onlookers said it was the worst thing they had ever seen. Firemen tried to shield bodies from grief stricken parents as they carried inert forms to police squadrons and fire department ambulances which waited in a long line for their tragic cargoes.

The rectory of the church early in the night was made a meeting place for parents seeking children, and possibly the children they were seeking.

The church remained open. Parishioners entered it to pray, some seeking consolation for the loss of a loved one, others giving thanks that a child was rescued.

Battle hysterical parents

The search by parents was heart breaking. At St. Anne’s hospital, which handled about 40 of those taken to hospitals, police had to prevent hysterical parents from rushing in to see if their children were there.

Other hospitals which received victims were Franklin Boulevard, Walther Memorial, Norwegian-American, Garfield Park, St. Mary’s and University of Illinois. Doctors and nurses came from other hospitals to treat the victims.

Mayor Daley and Archbishop Albert Meyer were among city and church officials who rushed to the scene. Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn said “It was the worst thing I have ever seen or ever will see.”

Express arson suspicion

Altho there was early speculation that the fire started in the boiler room, Quinn said he had inspected the room and there definitely “was no boiler explosion.”

However, Quinn expressed suspicion that the fire might have been set by an arsonist. A 30 gallon can, found in the stairwell up which smoke and flames rushed, was taken to the police crime laboratory for examination. Police said it was not believed to have been in the stairwell before. The black smudges on the lower walls of the stairwell indicated that an oil-like substance had been burning there.

The dead nuns were identified as Sister Mary Seraphica, Sister Mary Canice, and Sister Mary Clare Theresa. Three of the injured were nuns. They are Sister Mary Davidis, who is in poor condition, and Sister Mary Helaine, who is in fair condition; and Sister Mary Gerilita.

Sister Mary St. Florence, the principal, was reported to be suffering from shock and was in seclusion under police orders.

Fear, horror grip parents seeking kin
  • Faces are etched in misery
  • Picture Story. Turn to the back page for a full page of pictures of the school fire. Other fire pictures on pages 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7.
By Clay Gowran

They waited in desperation Monday outside the fire-gutted ruin on North Avers avenue. They waited, fearfully, in busy corridors of the hospitals. And, with horror for what they might find, they waited in the somber building which is the County morgue.

They were the mothers and fathers who, for endless minutes or hours, did not know whether their youngsters were among the living or the huddled dead of Our Lady of the Angels school.

Misery etches faces

All they knew –the knowledge etched its misery into their faces- was that their children were “unaccounted for.”

To Tribune reporters on the scene and in the hospitals and in the morgue, these were nightmarish minutes and hours, punctuated by shrieks of wild joy as a parent found a lost child unharmed and by anguished wails as some other mother or father was given grimmer word.

At St. Anne’s hospital, Lloyd Chambers, 3818 Huron st., waited in his work overalls with his distraught wife, then was led into a quiet room where he identified the body of their daughter, Margaret, 9, a fourth grader. Carefully, searching for the words, he told his wife, but she could not believe it.

Margaret, she sobbed, had worn a 10 cent store ruby ring to school Monday. Had he seen the ring? Would he go back to make sure? Numbly, Chambers did.

Searches for children

Oscar Sarno, 3804 Chicago av., another father, was supposed to wait with the other parents in a lounge, but somehow he managed to bet by guards and into the hospital auditorium, turned into a emergency room for some 30 little fire victims.

Patiently, he went from cot to cot, asking the small occupants: “Where is my Joanne, where is my Billy?” But they could not tell him the fate of his 9 year daughter or 13 year old boy.

More than 100 mothers and fathers crowded St. Anne’s men dressed just the way they rushed form shop or office, women pale and shaken. Some sat praying. Others just stared from unseeing eyes.

From time to time, a hospital attendant called out the name of a child and the good or terrible news about it.

“Thank God, he’s alive,” cried a mother, told her boy was all right.

Stunned by word

Another mother sank to the floor when the word came of her daughter. She sobbed thru blinding tears: “She was so young… so very young.”

Nerves tore loose during the waiting. A young father screamed at his wife, “Why didn’t you tell her to stay home today?”

Mildred and Ted Davis, 1224 N. Harding av., waited in terror for two hours at St. Anne’s after first paying fruitless visits to two other hospitals. Then they learned –and they could not speak when they learned it- that Joanne, 10, suffered only minor burns, and was all right.

Bizarre and terrible error cropped up. Two nuns identified one small body at St. Anne’s as that of Joann Pellettiere, 12, of 936 N. Avers av., only to have the child’s parents telephone the hospital saying she was all right.

Mrs. Margo Finnegan, 1142 Monticello av., viewed another little body identified by nuns as that of her daughter, Nancy, 14.

“That’s not my Nancy,” she cried. “She didn’t wear those shoes.”

At Franklin Boulevard hospital, Mrs. Howard Anglim, of 844 N. Central Park av., tried frantically to question little Frances Penne, 10, a smudged and slightly burned child who was a fifth grade classmate of Mrs. Anglim’s son, Bobby, also 10.

Where was he? she asked, her voice breaking. Had Frances seen him? Did he get out of the burning school? Frances could not help. One of the first out of her second floor room, she knew nothing about the others.

In the vicinity of the school, it was the same.

Throng parish convent

In the 906 block of Avers avenue, a crying woman, apparently unable to speak English, stopped firemen and members of the crown, pointed at the school nearby, and showed a grimy, wrinkled scrap of paper. Part of the writing on in was illegible. What could be mad out said: “Mary… room 209.”

A milling throng of frantic parents clustered outside the parish convent, across from the ruined school, and tried to force an entrance, only to be pushed back by policemen.

“Where can we look… where can we look?” the crown almost chanted.

Robot-like, the patrolmen over and over told the grief-stricken mothers and fathers to “call the Austin police station –that’s where the names are being gathered.”

Earlier Monday, Mrs. Pauline Baroni, 1234 N. Harding av., stood outside the school clutching a small, quilted red jacket. Hearing of the fire, she had brought it from home to warm her daughter, Karen, 10, a 5th grader.

“But I can’t find her,” she kept crying. “I can’t find her.”

In a nearby drug store was Mrs. Ralph Weaver, too excited to give her address. With her –enjoying an ice cream cone- was her daughter, Ann, 7.

“I looked for her for 90 minutes,” said Mrs. Weaver. “I saw firemen carrying out children and a nun, and I don’t know whether they were alive or dead. Then, I found her.”

All along the streets of the neighborhood after the fire, frantic parents rang one doorbell after another. They knew that residents had taken in the little refugees from the blaze, helter-skelter as they came, and now they were trying to find their own youngsters.

Mrs. Mary Zagone, of 925 N. Springfield av., looked for her Rosemary, 10, at the scene until she learned the child had been taken to Walther Memorial hospital.

Monday night, Mrs. Zagone and her husband, Martin, a maintenance man, were at the hospital with the child, giving thanks that she was alive, although she suffered arm fractures and a concussion. They did not know how she reached the hospital or how she was hurt, they said.

Grimmest of all the environs which figured in Monday’s tragedy was the drab, yellow brick building at 1828 Polk st., which is the county morgue.

More than 300 mothers and fathers huddled there in stricken groups or, crazed with grief, roamed the corridors trying to buttonhole hurrying attendants. As new parents arrived, they did what those who had come earlier had done –gave their names to a Red Cross worker, gave the name of their child, and gave a description of the child and, maybe, of a ring or a trinket he or she might have worn.

Then, they waited.

Grief marks waiting

Thru the hours, nurses came to the waiting parents from time to time. Sometimes they asked if anyone was waiting to learn about a child with such and such name.

Other times was worse.

“Is anyone looking for a little boy who wore and Indian like ring?” a nurse asked.

There was a hush for a moment. Then, numbly, a man stood up, gazed at the nurse, and nodded. He was led away to the downstairs “identification rooms” to view a small body.

Priests give comfort

Nurses from several hospitals were there helping, and more than 20 priests from parishes all over the city had come to give comfort as best as they could.

Down in the basement identification rooms was a tall, thin priest who seemed near collapse, but who kept going. He was Father Joseph Ognibene, who for 10 years has served in Our Lady of the Angels parish and who knew many of the youngsters who attended there.

Slowly and dazedly, he went from body to body, trying to recognize the boys and girls who, only last Friday, he had watched at their play or study in the doomed school.

Room of death – a scene that won’t erase

by Robert Wiedrich

Six small forms, the bodies of 4th or 5th graders, lay crumpled against the wall.

In a corner, the charred body of a nun lay buried in debris of the roof which had fallen into the room.

A fireman hacked at the wreckage of a second floor classroom in the Our Lady of the Angels Elementary school. Tears streaked his smoked smeared face.

Row on row of desks

“O, God, I’ve got two of my own in school,” he said. “What if these were mine?”

In another room, the desks of 2d or 3d graders stood row on row. Wach bore a water logged geography book. It was called “Our American Neighbors.” Each was open to the chapter on lumbering.

This was the aftermath of fire, a fire so hot and so swift that several score young lives were taken in a matter of minutes as rescuers worked as fast as they could, but found that it was not fast enough.

Leaves now ashes

A porcelain figure of the Virgin Mary stood on a book case. It had been a planter. The leaves of the plant, tho, were mere ashes.

And the statue looked out over a room of death. The water soaked papers of a child working an arithmetic problem lay on a desk. The ink had run and the figures were blurred. The paper would never be graded. The teaches was dead.

Final agony of flame

So was the pupil. You could see where both had sought to flee the scaring heat of the fire.

The nun’s desk had been hurled forward as the struggle to reach her charges in the final agony of flame.

And the pupil’s small body was by the desk, his features contorted.

A battalion chief sloshed thru the water that flowed on the concrete floor. He said he had been one of the first at the scene.

He wept as he told how firemen had tried to raise ladders to screaming children as they clung from second floor windows, pleading for the help which for many never came.

For found dead

“We tried,” he said. “God, how we tried. But we couldn’t move fast enough. No one could live in that fire.

“I saw four of them leaning over a window sill, crying. We tried to reach them. Then suddenly they slumped, doubled over the sill. They were dead when we got to them.”

The school’s second floor was burned out, wall to wall. Sections of roof had collapsed. Interior walls ceased to exist.

A wool mitten, decorated with sequins, lay in the rubble.

Twenty more minutes and the children would have been out of school; 1,200 seconds and death would have been cheated.

The blaze struck at 2:40 p.m. Classed ended at 3 p.m.

Firemen stumbled over the wooden desks that stood in a double line in the second floor corridor.

“The ones who jumped were lucky,” said a division marshal. “They just broke arms and legs. I hope I never see something like this again.”

Outside the school, parents stood. Priests knelt to give the last rites to canvas covered forms which once had been children. Mothers wept and fathers tried to comfort, but cried, too.

On Chicago avenue, a block to the south, a loud speaker blared Christmas carols from the door of a record shop. Bur Christmas in this neighborhood would be grim.

In Our Lady of the Angels church, just east of the school, the lights were out. Fire had burned the power lines.

But in the pitch black church people knelt and prayed, the bitter smell of smoke in their nostrils. And on the steps a woman cried.

A cold wind swirled the smoke from the still smouldering school about her.

Angels school built in 1910, records show

The Our Lady of the Angels School building, which was swept by fire Monday, was built at 909 Avers av. in 1910, city building department records show. A second smaller building was constructed within the last five years, and the school had an enrollment of 1,635 at the beginning of this school year.

About 1,200 of the pupils attended classes in the building struck by the fire.

29 faculty members

The faculty included nine lay teachers, all women, and 20 nuns of the Sisters of Charity, Blesses Virgin Mary, order.

The building had been remodeled in 1951, School records of the Chicabo Roman Catholic archdiocese indicate that the kindergarten, which had 120 pupils, was on a double shift.

Once housed church

When the burned building was erected, it housed the parish church on the first floor and the classrooms were on the second. After the present church was built in 1939, the first floor of the original building was converted to classrooms.

Thruout its history, the school has had only a kindergarten and eight elementary grades. In keeping with architecture of the period in which it was built, the building’s classrooms were large with high ceilings and extensive woor trim.

Copter hovers over school in W-G-N report

An on the scene report of the fire at Our Lady of the Angels school, 3808 Iowa st., came directly from the W-G-N Traffic Copter flying over the building at 4 p.m.

The report was broadcast on W-G-N by Leonard Baldy of the traffic division of the Chicago police department.

Baldy urgen motorists to stay out of the area so as not to impede fire fighting operations, reported on congested streets in the area, and recommended alternate routes.

The grim story of the fire, the heroic rescue efforts, and the life saving measures by doctors and nurses in the hospitals, as exclusive filmed by W-G-N-TV, will be retelecast at 8:45 a.m. and 11:55 a.m. Tuesday on channel 9. The pictures were first shown at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday.

Horror Scene told by those who survived

Many jumped as fire pushed closer

By Harry Adams 

Drama pached stories of being trapped in the burning of Our Lady of Angels school and their escapes and rescues were told by frenzied children in hospitals where they were taken for treatment and as they milled around the doomed building.

Linda Barleto, 12, of 743 N. Drake av., told of being pushed out of a window of a second floor classroom.

Firemen use ladders

«Our backs were burning,» she said. «Then someone pushed me out of a window.»

Linda suffered burns and bruises, but her condition was reported good. Andrea Gagliareo, 12, her cousin and classmate told of opening a window in the classroom and screaming for help.

«Some of the boys jumped out of the window,» she said. «When we looked down we saw the lying still on the ground. It was like a miracle when we saw the firemen with their ladders.»

Frances Panno, 10, of 3235 Division st., told of her rescue by firemen as she sat in Franklin Boulevard hospital, sipping orange juice.

One of first to escape

The little girl, her face and hands burned and her clothing smudged and charred, said she was one of the first of her 5th grade class to reach one of the windows of her classroom.

«As other pupils pushed and screamed behind me,» she said, «firemen on ladders suddenly appeared at the window and took me down the ladder to the ground.»

The stories of the children were interpersed with one told by Leroy Hewlett, 31, who lives diagonally across from the school at 854 N. Avers av.

Gate of fence locked

He said five minutes before the children were to be released from school he heard children screaming. He said he ran to the street as the first piece of fire department equipment arrived. Residents assisted firemen in lifting ladders over a wooden fence, the gate of wich was locked.

«Kids were hanging from windows, jumping of falling in groups of three or four at a time,» he said. «Smoke and flames poured from the windows. A little girl stood at the window of a ledge on the second floor, screaming for help.»

Tell of smelling smoke

Mary Brock, 10, a 5th grade pupil on the second floor, said she first learned of the fire when someone shouted, «I smell smoke.»

«When the room door was opened, a gust of smoke blew in,» she said. «Sister Mary Clara Theresa said, «Get out of the window and get on the ledge and stay there.» I got out of the window and stood on the ledge, but lots of others jumped.»

After being rescued by firemen, Mary ran home seeking two brothers, Gerald, 9, and Dennis, 7. They were already home. Her mother, Ann, took her to the hospital for treatment of burns on her face.

Mary Lattanzio, 12, of 3614 Chicago av., a 7th grader, said she first heard children screaming in the adjoining 8th grade room.

Smoke began to pour into the 7th grade room, and children became hysterical, jamming the door, she related. «One boy collapsed from inhaling smoke. Another was hanging out the window, calling for help.»

Told to go home

Joseph Brocato, 11, of 851 N. Springfield av., a 6th grade pupil brought to St. Elizabeth’s hospital by his father. Anthony, said he and a classmate were emptying waste paper baskets from his classroom in the boiler room when he first baceme aware of the fire.

«Suddenly,» he said, «I saw the janitor running from the boiler room. The janitor shouted, «Call the fire department.» My classmates and I ran upstairs and we were told by the nuns to go into the church. A lot of children were in the church. We then were told to go home.»

Kathy Harte, 11, of 928 N. Springfield, a 6th grader and daughter of Ed harte, a detective at East Chicago avenue police station, said her teacher was giving out an assignment when one of the girls saw smoke coming out of a window.

Line up for fire drill

«Miss Rossi (the teacher) lined us up in fire drill line, and we began to file out into the hall,» Kathy said. «The black smoke kept coming in. It got in my mouth, and I couldn’t breathe until I got to the window.

«Then I felt someone pushing me, and they pushed me all the way down the stairs. I don’t know who it was, but I think it was some 8th grader, one of the bigger kids.»

Sylvia Tesauro, 13, of 808 N. Sacramento av., an 8th grader, told her story from a room in Walther Memorial hospital, where she was confined with three other pupils.

«Two girls entered our classroom and said the hall was filled with smoke,» she related. «Sister tried to lead the class downstairs.

«We were forced back by thick smoke and had to go to the windows to get air. Many of the pupils became histerical and were forced to remain until firemen raised ladders.

«As I came down a ladder other pupils were jumping and falling from windows all about me. There was blood on the ground and children were lying all around as I teached the ground.»

George Pomilia, 10, of 856 N. Trumbull av., said he was forced by smoke to the second floor ledge, dangled from the lodge by his finger tips, and then jumped to the ground, suffering a fractured hip.

Heard futile screams

«I heard kids screaming, ‘Fire, fire, get us out of here,'» Arthur Barsella, 11, of 823 N. Avers av., a 6th grader on the second floor related. «Sister Mary Urbanita, who was writing homework on the blackboard, started leading children out of the room. Some of the pupils in the room started running.

«Kids were hanging out the windows screaming, ‘Get us out of here.’ Some were jumping into firemen’s arms and others onto the pavement.»

Mrs. Peter Tarenski, a resident at 900 N. Avers av., across the street from the school, said she saw a teacher leaning out a second floor window shouting, «Everything is on fire up here.»

«Other children were hanging out of the windows and screaming and crying,» Mrs. Tarenski said.

«This will be a day I will never forget,» said Joseph Graziano, 12, of 932 N. Monticello av., a 7th grader. «We heard somebody scream thaat the roof was on fire. We couldn’t see anything. Kids fell on the floor screaming.»

Joseph DeCristofano, 10, of 945 N. Monticello, said his 5th grade class was doing arithmetic when «our teacher opened the door and black smoke poured in.»

«Everybody was in panic,» James related. «Some kids fell down on the stairs. One jumped out of the window. I guess the furnace blew up.»

Nun’s heroism lauded by Archbishop Meyer

«My heart goes out in sympathy to all the bereaved families who lost their children in this fire, as well as to those who have beloved ones among the injured,» said Archbishop Albert Meyer in a statement issued Monday night after the tragic fire at Our Lady of the Angles school.

«Our only recourse is to turn to God in the spirit of faith and of submission to His holy will,» the statement added.

The archbishop extended his sympathy to Msgr. Joseph F. Cussen, pastor of the church, other priests there, and to the nuns, who, he said, «labored heroically thruout the course of the tragedy.»

Will offer masses

He expressed thanks to the fire and police departments. He said he was offering his masses for all the dead «and for the intentions of the living, praying God to grant us the strength and the resignation that come only from Him.»

«We ask our Blessed Savior and Our Lady of Sorrows to grant us this grace, begging then to look down with pity upon us in our hour of great and indescribable sorrow, as we strive with their help to unite ourselves to their suffering on Calvary,» he said.

In some Catholic churches Monday night, bells were tolled in mourning for the fire victims.

Rosary service held

Some parishes planned memorial masses in the near future. In Holy Family church, 1080 Roosevelt rd., a rosary service for the dead children was held Monday night. At 11 a.m. Tuesday, the church will hold a memorial mass.

Another parish, St. Boniface, 921 N. Noble st., will have a memorial mass at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

A sorrowing group of worshippers assembled in the main inquest room of the county morgue Monday night to recite the rosary. They were parents and relatives of the school fire victims and most of them were red eyed from weeping.

Priest gives blessing

There was not enough room for kneeling so most stood as the Rev. Alfred Abramowicz of the chancery office led the prayers.

As he reached the last decade of the rosary, Father Abramowicz said: «As we say this last decade, let us ask our Blessed Virgin Mary for holy resignation, realizing that she, too, lost her only son on the cross.»

When we finished, he raised a smoll wooden crucifix and gave his blessing to all in the room. Nurses, priests, and policemen on duty joined the prayers.

At 2:42 p.m. firemen begin a grim battle

  • Equipment on scene in few minutes

The first report on the fire at Our Lady of Angels school was telephoned to the fire department at 2:42 p.m. Monday, and nearby equipment was immediately dispatched.

Two minutes later, at 2:44 p.m., after receiving several other telephone calls, the fire alarm office pulled a box on the fire, which sent four engines, two trucks, one quad, two battalion chiefs, a division marshal, and a division patrol to the scene at 909 N. Avers av.

At 2:47 p.m., the battalion chief of the 18th district pulled at 2:11 alarm, calling in additional equipment.

5-11 alarm sounded

At 2:55 p.m. a 5-11 alarm was sounded, bringing in 24 engines, seven trucks, five squads, nine ambulances, two light wagons, another division marshal, four pumpers, and two towers. It also called Fire Commissioner Rovert Quinn to the fire.

The 5-11 alarm, the highest alarm which can be sounded outside of a special alarm, affected indirectly virtually every piece of fire fighting equipment in the city. equipment from outlying barns moved in to take over fire stations whose equipment had been sent to the fire.

Police send squadrois

At 2:53 p.m., the police department dispatched 27 squadrols, which can double as amblances, 23 three-wheel motorcycles, and 23 squad cars, together with approximately 100 policemen, to handle traffic.

Commisioner Quinn declared the fire officially out at 4:19 p.m. altho it had been brought under control some time before.

First to arrive

Sixteen firemen under command of Chief Miles Devine of the 18th battalion were the first to arrive in response to the still alarm, with engine 85, truck 35, and squad 6.

Children had marched out of the lower floor and were lined up on Avers avenue and Iowa street, but children were crowding the windows on the second floor.

Eight ladders from struck 35 were run up, and two life nets were placed, one manned by Willad Martens and Walter Romanczak of truck 35 at the northeast corner of the building.

Some miss net

The children were so jammed together in the windows that is was imposible for them to jump, one at a time. They jumped two or three at a time. Sometimes two would hit the life net at once. Others missed the net altogether and struck the ground.

The firemen agreed that the children were trapped on the second floor by what is known technically as a «hot box» in the second floor hallway, an accumulation of smoke, heat, and flame caused when classroom doors and windows were opened, supplying a forced draft for the fire.

Firemen themselves were unable to penetrate the heat in the second floor hall.

Martens and Romanczak estimated that between 20 and 25 children leaped into their net, and an equal number into a net held by members of squad 6.

Nuns, parents, passers-by save children

  • Fathers rescues girl and 12 others

Nuns, parents, and passers by were heroes and heroines Monday in the disastrous fire in Our Lady of the Angels school. They were periled, in some cases repeatedly, as they ran into the flaming and smoke filled building in a furious struggle to rescue trapped children.

Sam Tortorice, 42, of 908 N. Hamlin a., run into the blazing school, fearful for the safety of his daughters, rose, 13, and Judy, 11. Inside, he assisted in the rescue of Rose and a dozen or more of her trapped classmates.

Returning home from shopping, Tortorice learned of the fire and rushed to the school. Fighting his way thru thick, black smoke. Tortorice reached Rose’s classroom in the sothwest end of the building.

Girls struggle for air

He found a group of girls, including Rose, pressed against a window, struggling for air. The girls were barred from leaving thru the door by dense smoke.

The girls were screaming. «Save me, save me.»Stradling an open window, Tortorice lowered the girls, one by one, thru the window 5 feet down to a ledge above a school entrance. There, the girls were grabbed by the Rev. Joseph Ognibene, a parish priest, and another man, whose identity was not learned, from an adjacent window on the stairway and pulled to safety.

Tortorice lowered six of the girls to the ledge before he was able to reach Rose and rescue her. Meanwhile, firemen raised a ladder to Tortorice, which he placed against the window from the ledge and directed other or Rose’s classmates down the ladder. Tortorice learned later that his younger daughter had reached safety.

Rescues 12; son killed

Max Stachura 0f 918 N. Hamlin av. told of seeing his son, Mark Allen, 9, trapped in the burning building. Stachura later identified the body in the county morgue.

Stachura said he ran to the school after hearing of the fire and saw his son leaning out of a second floor window. He said he tried to enter but was driven back by smoke and flames. He said he pleaded for his son to jump, but Mark wouldn’t.

Stachure caught other children who jumped before his son disappeared.

Makes repeated trips

There was Conrad Rossi, of 849 N. Avers av., who made five or six trips into the building of doom, leading 35 to 45 children to safety until smoke and flames made it impossible for him to return again.

His rescue missions started when, walking past the school, he saw youngsters running out into the cold coatless and heard a priest shout, «There’s children in there; it’s on fire!»

Rossi ran repeatedly into the building until smoke got so thick that he got sick and groggy. On his last trip into a smoke filled room, he said he saw a little boy starting to jump from a window.

Slips from Grasp

«I grabbed the child’s clothes, but he just slipped out of my fingers,» he said, «As I turned from the window, I tripped over another little child, unconscious. I picked up the child and saw a handful of other kids screaming and crying.»

He ordered the children to hold hands, then taking the hand of one at the end of the line, he broght them to safety.

«When I got outside it was a terrible sight,» Rossi said. «Kids were jumping out of windows wildly, one on top of the other.»

A nun, who declined to identify herself, made three trips into the burning building, each time leading out at least six pupils.

«Felt untold stregth»

«I felt untold strenght,» she said in St. Anne’s hospital where she was being treated.

The nun told of assembling 30 to 40 pupils of the 6th and 7th grades in a smoke filled hallway on the second floor and of instructing the to crawl toward safety along the floor. She said she rolled some of the pupils down stairs to get them out quickly.

An unexplainable impulse caused Casimir Janik, 38, of 6314 S. Wood st., to alter his route home from his job as a milkman. It led him fast the school before firemen arrived. He parked nearby and ran several times into the smoke filled building, carrying the burned children to safety.

Finds girl in shock

«I found one girl, her shoes missing , hanging on to a banister, seemingly in a state of shock,» he said. «I yanked her loose, took her to church, and placed her on a pew. Twice, I carried two girls out, one under each arm.»

Daniel Grimaldi, 32, of 852 N. Hamlin av., went up a ladder to rescue a girl he believed might be his own daughter. It wasn’t, but he carried the girl down from the second floor.

While coming down the ladder, Grimaldi said, «I saw another girl leap out. She brushed right past my face.»

Grimaldi said he learned later that his two children, Mary, 8, a 3d grader, and Frank, 11, a 5 th grader, escaped uninjured.

Lt. Charles Kamin, in charge of truck 35, mounted to the top of a ladder against a second floor window on the northeast corner of the building.

He found the children so closely jammed in the window that he was able to get one a a time only by shaving the others back, grabbing one child by his belt, swinging him out of the window and behind him to the ladder.

Kamin said he rescued eighty or 10 in this manner and that when he turned back, the window contained only flames, altho children had been there a moment before.

Student nurse volunteers on job at morgue

Coroner Walter McCarron praised the work of 40 student nurses from hospitals affiliated with the County hospital, who devoted their services after regular duty hours, at the morgue, distributing sandwiches and coffee and caring for grief stricken parents. The nurses, studying at County hospital, are from the Loyola university nursing school, Illinois Masonic hospital, St. Anthony’s hospital, Rockford; Lakeview hospital, Danville; and Swedish Covenant hospital.

Party halted to collect $200 in fire relief

A group of production men in the candy industry halted their scheduled Christmas party Monday to take up a $200 collection for Our Lady of the Angels school and church.

«We hope this will get something started,» said Walter Mayer, secretary of the Chicago Candy Production club. «We want to help.»

Wednesday, March 7, 1962
Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, March 28, 1962
Chicago Tribune
Parents lose son’s custody in arson case

Out-of-State School to treat him

A 13 year old boy who admitted setting the Our Lady of the Angels school fire, but later recanted the confession, was taken from his parents’ custody yesterday for placement in a psychriatist institution.

Judge Alfred J Cilella of Family court ordered that the boy be held in the Audy [Juvenile] home until he is accepted in an out of state private school where he can be given psychotherapy. Cost of the treatment will be shared by the parents and the county.

Cleared in school fire

Judge Cilella found the boy guilty a week ago of having set a series of apartment house fires in Cicero, the suburb to which the boy moved after having attended the Our Lady of the Angels school.

The court, however, ruled that the boy’s confession in the school fire bore little resemblance to the actual facts and therefore cleared him of having set the blaze which took the lives of 92 pupils and three nuns in 1958.

«After a careful consideration of all the factors, and especially the report of my probation officer and the psychiatrist report of my department of psychiatric services. I find this child is an emotionally disturbed boy who is in need of psychotherapy,» Judge Cilella said.

Facilities limited

«It is my opinion that this boys should be placed in a school that will afford him these opportunities of therapy. Unfortunately, we do not have any public facilities affording this type of care. Private facilities are very limited within the state.»

Judge Cilella reported that the court had been able to locate a school to meet the boy’s particular needs outside of Illinois, that the school had tentatively agreed to accept the boy, but needed time to process the application. The court refused to identify the school by name. Cilella said that if the school eventually decides not to take the child, efforts will be made to find another institution of the same type.

Resources lacking

«This case illustrates once again that the court does not always have the resources necessary to discharge its responsabilities effectively,» Cilella noted.

The boy’s parents were present in court when Judge Cilella read his order from the bench. They showed no emotion when the judge noted that he did not believe the boy could remain wit his parents and receive proper treatment.

Questioned by Reid

The boy first confessed setting the school fire Jan, 12 during a questioning session with John E. Reid, a polygraph expert at 600 S. Michigan av. His parents had taken him to Reid in an affort to clear him of the Cicero fires thru a lie detector test.

During hearings before Judge Cilella, the boy recanted his confession. He also denied setting the series of suburban fires. The boy was a 5th grader in the school the day of the fire, Dec. 1, 1958.

Thursday, August 6, 1964.
New York Times
Alfred Cilella, 54, a judge in Chicago

Special to The New York Times AUG. 6, 1964

CHICAGO, Aug. 5 – Circuit Judge Alfred J. Cilella died in Hinsdale Sanitarium yesterday shortly after having collapsed while playing golf at the But­terfield Country Club near sub­urban Lombard. He was 54 years old.

Judge Cilella received his law degree from Northwestern Uni­versity. A star baseball player, he was given a tryout with the New York Giants while still in college. However, he chose a career in law and politics rather than sports.

After being admitted to the fear, he was elected to the Ill­inois House of Representatives and served one term, in 1943‐44. In 1951 he was elected a Chi­cago alderman from the 36th Ward, of which he had been Democratic committeeman.

As a member of the City Council, Mr. Cilella led the suc­cessful fight for fluoridation of Chicago’s water supply. He served in the City Council until he was elected to the circuit bench in 1958.

Judge Cilella was a member of the executive board of the Chicago Council of the Boy Scouts of America from 1955 to 1961. He was made chairman of the Chicago Youth Commis­sion in 1954. In 1962 he was made a knight officer in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Surviving are his widow, the former Mabel Lowe; a son, Alfred Jr., and a daughter, Linda Mary.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005.
Chicago Daily Tribune

Cops: Author an arsonist

  • ‘Great Chicago Fires’ writer is charged with starting one.
A former firefighter and co-author of a book on the deadly 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School fire was being held Monday on charges that he torched a storage building at a North Side church.

Chicago author David Cowan spent the last decade studying and documenting fires, co-authoring one of the most extensive volumes on the Our Lady of Angels blaze, which killed 92 children and three nuns.

In recent years his life was not going as planned, those close to him said Monday. He had been fired from the Bellwood Fire Department in 2003, had nearly been divorced and recently was fired from a job as a church janitor.

He apparently bottomed out last week, said his wife, Ursula Bielski, when he allegedly set fire to a storage building on the grounds of St. Benedict Church in the city.

Now the noted author–whose book titles include «Great Chicago Fires: Historic Blazes That Shaped a City»–stands charged with arson and was in the Cook County Jail late Monday.

Cowan wanted to be caught, Bielski said, allegedly setting the fire and waiting near the building for her. Bielski runs a «ghost tour» that takes visitors around to Chicago haunts on a bus, a vehicle that Bielski parks at the church in a lease arrangement.

Cowan would have known the bus would be returning to the church around the time the fire was set after 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Bielski said.

«I think it’s almost like [the fire] was something that he’s familiar with, and dramatic enough to draw attention so people would see something is wrong,» Bielski said Monday. «It was something he could control, so he could do this and no one would get hurt.»

«I think he was just trying to get some attention because he’s been so desperate. I think he was overwhelmed and felt overwhelmingly alone,» she said. «He just sort of panicked.»

Instead of appearing Sunday at the Printers Row Book Fair, where he had been slated to sign books, Cowan was in bond court, where a judge set bail at $100,000. There was no mention during the hearing of Cowan’s writings, and he has been ordered to return to court Friday.

Police and prosecutors said Cowan gave a statement to investigators Friday admitting that he set the fire. He allegedly told police he held a lighter to paper in the one-story brick storage building at the church and school campus in the 2200 block of West Irving Park Road.

Had the fire jumped to the main structures just feet away, «it would have done a lot of damage,» said parish manager Tom Bartholomew. «Fortunately, the fire department got here really fast.»

Bartholomew said the church gave Cowan a job in its maintenance department after the Bellwood Fire Department dismissed him. A church maintenance worker had been injured in a car accident, and Cowan was hired to fill in while he recovered, Bartholomew said.

«Dave insisted he had been fired incorrectly, and he was suing to get his job back,» Bartholomew said.

Bellwood Fire Chief Andre Harvey confirmed Cowan was fired from the department after seven years in December 2003.

According to documents in the lawsuit, the Bellwood Police and Fire Board fired Cowan for what it described as misconduct. Cowan called in sick June 10, 2003, according to a fire department complaint, and went to an apartment where his wife was staying, broke down the door and damaged furniture and cabinetry.

Cowan’s lawyer in the employment case, Peter Swanson, said Cowan is convinced he was fired for his efforts to organize a union of Bellwood firefighters.

Bielski on Monday said she has reconciled with her husband and that they live together with their two children.

«I just feel very compassionate toward him, and I hope that he gets help,» said Bielski, who had yet to speak with her husband Monday afternoon.

John Kuenster, Cowan’s co-author on the book about the Our Lady of the Angels fire, said he was stunned by the news.

The book, «To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire,» has been considered an authoritative work on the blaze.

While Kuenster said he had been haunted by the memories of the children lost in the Our Lady of the Angels blaze, he said he was always struck by how fascinated Cowan was with the fire.

«He was really into it,» Kuenster said. «He was always really fascinated by the fires themselves.»

Bielski said her husband, too, was affected by the tragedy. She said his work had enabled people whose lives were forever altered by the Our Lady of the Angels fire to talk about it.

«I worry now that people will feel he’s a firebug,» Bielski said. «And he’s done so much good.

«He was a wonderful firefighter -absolutely devoted to the job- and he saved lives,» she said. «He’s always been absolutely exemplary.»