Contents


Background

Scope and Content

Our Lady of the Angels School, Chicago, Illinois December 1, 1958 Fire Collection

Mount Carmel Archives, Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

2014

Creator: Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Title: Our Lady of the Angels School, Chicago, Illinois December 1, 1958 Fire Collection
Dates: 1958 - 2008, bulk 1958 - 1959.
Extent: 6 linear feet (2 boxes and 3 oversize flat file boxes)
Identification: BVM001

Background

On December 1, 1958 a fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago, Illinois between 2:00 and 2:20 p.m. It started in the basement stairwell and travelled up the wooden staircase to the second floor; the first floor was blocked by a fire door but the second floor was not. Superheated gasses also travelled up a pipe chase to the attic where they eventually ignited. Fire travelled through the halls on the second floor of the north wing and down from the attic above the classrooms. By the time teachers and students on the second floor were aware of the fire, the hallway, the main route of escape, was blocked by smoke and fire. Five teachers and 329 students were trapped. Students in one classroom escaped using the school's only fire escape, which was adjacent to their classroom. But for the other classrooms, the only escape was the windows. As the smoke, fire and heat began building in the classrooms, children began jumping from the second floor windows, approximately 25 feet above ground level. Many were killed or severely injured on impact or by the bodies of those jumping after them. Other children were trapped against the window sills because of the crush of bodies behind them or they were too small to climb over the ledge. Some children suffocated at their desks waiting for help to arrive.

The fire department received the first call at 2:42 and arrived four minutes later, but by the time the fire was noticed it had been burning for up to forty minutes. Even as fire crews began rescuing children by ladder, children still jumped from the windows. At approximately 2:55, less than ten minutes after fire crews arrived, flashover occurred and the roof collapsed. The rush of heat and gas from the collapse instantly killed anyone remaining on the second floor.

A total of 95 people died as a result of the fire. Three Sisters and 87 children died on December 1, 1958. Ninety people (87 children and 3 Sisters) required treatment or hospitalization. Five more children eventually succumbed to their injuries: three died before Christmas, one died in March 1959 and the last child died in August 1959.

The Coroner's Jury found that the origin and cause of the fire were "undetermined." Many suspect arson. In 1962, a boy who was in fifth grade at the time of the fire confessed to setting the fire, and provided details that were not released to the public. He later recanted and was never prosecuted because a court determined that evidence to substantiate the confession was lacking.

At the time of the fire, the school complied with all applicable fire codes and laws. However, it was not subject to new requirements due to the age of building. These requirements included sprinkler systems, heat detectors or automatic fire alarms that rang directly to the fire department.

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Scope and Content

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