A Modern Memorial to a Devastating School Fire

Location: Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, 3808 West Iowa Street, Chicago, IL, 34236, 41.897484 N,87.721772 W

Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School was home to one of the most horrific school fires in American history, resulting in the deaths of 92 school children and 3 teachers. A memorial to the victims of this fire was unveiled in 2007, permanently marking the location of this heartbreaking tragedy. Both the recently renovated church and the memorial serve as a testament that such a tragedy will not be forgotten.

It was Monday, December 1st, 1958 when the 1,600 students of Our Lady of the Angels School were seated in classrooms finishing their schoolwork as the end of the day grew near. Sometime around 2:20pm, a small fire broke out in a basement trash can near the bottom of a north stairway. The fire smoldered unnoticed for an undetermined amount of time, slowly growing in size and increasing in temperature. Smoke and heat began rising through the stairwell, wafting a haze through the second floor hallway. A few students and a custodian noticed the smoke, but confusion over evacuation procedures, a lack of working alarm pull stations, and a delay in notifying the fire department hampered hopes of removing students from danger.

A Chicago fireman climbs a ladder to one of the second floor classrooms. (Photo courtesy www.olafire.com)

At the time the fire was discovered, the heat was growing exponentially, shattering a window and feeding the flames with cold air from outside. The fire quickly erupted and ascended the stairwell directly to the cockloft space above the attic, running across the building. The fire fed on the wooden combustible interior finishes and flammable wax that had coated the floors after many years of applications. By now the moderate haze had turned to thick, black, acrid smoke.

The building to the far left of this photo sits on the site of the original building where the tragic fire occurred on December 1st, 1958.

The initial call to the fire alarm office reported the address of the church and not the school, where the fire was burning on the opposite side of the property. The fire department response was timely but hampered by a need to reposition equipment to the adjacent street and break through an exterior fence. By now the second story of the school was engulfed in flames as children crowded windows in hopes of escaping this unfathomable tragedy.

The fire resulted in significant changes to fire codes and school safety standards across the United States, including to building construction features, fire drills and fire alarm notification requirements. Although this tragedy was not averted, countless others may have been avoided through these changes in the wake of this horrendous day.

Monumental USA is dedicated to highlighting local monuments and the human stories that lay at their foundation. The desire is to reinvigorate civic pride and sense of ownership through interesting monuments to events and personalities great and small across the nation, with a special focus on local and perhaps obscure or forgotten memorials.

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