A fire at a grade school in Chicago kills 90 students on this day in 1958.
The Our Lady of Angels School was operated by the Sisters of Charity in Chicago. In 1958, there were well over 1,200 students enrolled at the school, which occupied a large, old building. Unfortunately, little in the way of fire prevention was done before December 1958. The building did not have any sprinklers and no regular preparatory drills were conducted. When a small fire broke out in a pile of trash in the basement, it led to disaster.
The fire probably began about 2:30 p.m. and, within minutes, teachers on the first floor smelled it. These teachers led their classes outside, but did not sound a general alarm. The school’s janitor discovered the fire at 2:42 and shouted for the alarm to be rung. However, he was either not heard or the alarm system did not operate properly, and the students in classrooms on the second floor were completely unaware of the rapidly spreading flames beneath them.
It took only a few more minutes for the fire to reach the second floor. Panic ensued. Some students jumped out windows to escape. Although firefighters who were arriving on the scene tried to catch them, some were injured. Firefighters also tried to get ladders up to the windows. One quick-thinking nun had her students crawl under the smoke and roll down the stairs, where they were rescued. Other classes remained in their rooms, praying for help.
When the fire was finally extinguished several hours later, the authorities found that 90 students and 3 nuns had been killed in the fire.