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One of the Worst School Fires In U.S. History

Overhead view of Our Lady of the Angels school at the height of the fireOn December 1, 1958, a fire broke out in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels catholic school in Chicago, educational home to approximately 1,600 students in Kindergarten through 8th grade. The school was a two story structure built in 1910 but remodeled and added to numerous times in the intervening years. While legally in compliance with the fire safety laws of the time, the school was woefully unprepared for any kind of fire. There was only one fire escape, no sprinklers, no automatic fire alarm, no smoke or heat detectors, no alarm connected to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells and no fire-safe doors from the stairwells to the second floor. While the building's exterior was brick, the interior was made almost entirely of combustibles - stairs, walls, floors, doors and roof - all wood. The floors had been coated and re-coated many times with flammable petroleum based waxes. There were NO fire alarm switches in the north wing, and only two in the entire school, both located in the south wing. While there were four fire extinguishers in the north wing, they were mounted 7 feet off the floor, out of reach for many adults and virtually all of the children. The single fire escape was near one end of the north wing but to reach it required passing through the main corridor, which became filled with suffocating smoke and superheated gases. With it's 12-foot ceilings, the school's second floor windows were a daunting 25 feet from the ground, should someone decide to jump. Thus, the scenario for a tragedy was set.

Eighty-seven children and three nuns died on December 1, 1958 as a result of the Our Lady of the Angels fire. Three more critically injured children died before Christmas followed by two more in 1959, the last one on August 9. In the end, 92 children and 3 nuns perished, bring the ghastly death toll to a staggering 95.

Our Lady of the Angels school passed a fire department safety inspection only weeks before the fire, because the school did not have to comply with all fire safety guidelines due to a grandfathering clause in the 1949 standards. Existing schools were not required to retrofit the safety devices that were required in all newly constructed schools. In the only positive outcome of the tragedy, sweeping changes in school fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide, no doubt saving countless lives in subsequent years.