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Remembering the Our Lady of the Angels fire
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff

In this Dec. 1, 1958 file photo, fire fighters battle a blaze at the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.

 

Associated Press

John Raymond of Mount Prospect is a survivor of the Our Lady of the Angels school fire.

 

Bill Zar

Annette Szafran was rescued from a second-floor window 50 years ago in the Our Lady of the Angels school fire. Now she works for the Addison police department.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

In this Dec. 1958 file photo a fireman inspects a gutted classroom following the fire.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 11/29/2008 9:36 PM

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Our Lady of the Angels fire facts

Date: Monday, Dec. 1, 1958

Location: 909 N. Avers Ave. in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood

Time fire started: Between 2 and 2:20 p.m.

Source: Wastebasket in school's north wing stairwell

Suspected cause: Arson

Number of children who died: 92

Number of nuns who died: 3

Firefighters responding: 200

Age of school at time: 48 years old

Exterior: Brick

Interior: Heavily varnished wood

Safety features: One fire escape, no sprinklers, no fire alarms, no smoke detectors or fire-safe doors. There were four fire extinguishers in the north wing of the school, where the fire occurred, but they were mounted high off the floor and unreachable by most students

Sources: Our Lady of Angels fire memorial; 'To Sleep with the Angels,' by David Cowan and John Kuenster, 1996.

More Coverage

First of two parts

On a bitterly cold afternoon 50 years ago on Dec. 1, a fire blazed through Our Lady of the Angels, a Catholic grammar school nestled in a closely-knit neighborhood on Chicago's West side.

The fire, which claimed the lives of 92 children and three nuns, served as a catalyst for sweeping changes in school safety.

Fire codes across the country were drastically altered. Sprinkler systems were mandated. Grandfather clauses abolished.

Time marched on.

Survivors of the fire returned to school, graduated, headed to high school, college and new careers, many settling in the Chicago suburbs to raise families of their own; never forgetting but moving forward with their lives. Yet when it came time to send their sons and daughters off to school, the smoke, the heat, the fear of no escape all rushed back, raging inside them just as the fire had inside their classrooms so many years before.

As survivors, they needed to know it would not happen to the ones they loved the most: their children.

These are their stories.

John Raymond

Like many fathers, John Raymond watched his two sons grow with a mixture of pride and awe.

Their first steps. Birthdays. First days of school.

Then came fifth grade.

"When they'd get to fifth grade, I'd see them palling around with their friends, playing basketball. I'd say that could have been me," said Raymond, who was 11 when an undetected wastebasket fire ravaged the north wing of his alma mater, Our Lady of the Angels. "But man. I grew up real fast that day."

As a fifth-grader, Raymond remembers going through an afternoon geography lesson when smoke started streaming over the transom above the door to Room 212.

Thinking maybe it was a problem with the school's boiler, another student opened the classroom's back door for some air, only to have a rush of black smoke force itself inside.

Raymond's nun, Sister Clare Therese Champagne, ordered her 55 students to pray at their desks, waiting for the fire alarm to sound. The room started to fill with smoke, making the large globe lights almost impossible to see.

As children began to cough and heat began to fill the room, Sister Clare Therese ordered her students to the windows.

"She had just about gotten the words out of her mouth, and there were kids at all four windows," he said.

In a sort of trance, Raymond sat at his desk, unable to move.

He said he was convinced, at first, that this was a nightmare and he would wake up, praying "please, God, help me," over and over again.

On the verge of unconsciousness, Raymond began making his way to the windows, pushing everything out of his path.

Books. Desks. Even his classmates.

"I just went for the window," he said. "I feel bad about that. But that's what I did. It was a reaction to live I guess."

Jumping out of one of the second-story classroom windows, he fell more than 25 feet to the concrete alley below.

"I was pretty fortunate. I think because I was so loose coming down I didn't break any bones," he said. "It was a feeling of relief to be out of there. I remember being cool, there being air. I really didn't think of much other than being out of there."

Raymond landed next to a classmate who also had jumped, breaking both his ankles.

"We just watched what was going on," he said. "I remember him saying, 'Did Sister get out?' I said, 'I don't know.' Because we adored her."

Looking up, Raymond saw students jumping, hanging from the windows, parents trying to break their fall. One boy was on fire.

"All that was going on, the sound of it, it was all so hollow," he said. "And then I just started seeing fewer and fewer kids."

Raymond's aunt, who lived across the street from the school, opened up her house to victims of the fire. Kids were lying everywhere, he remembered.

Later that evening, Raymond was transported by Chicago police to Franklin Boulevard Hospital, where he received treatment for smoke inhalation, and the back and hip injuries he suffered during the fall.

One of seven children, Raymond had three brothers and one sister at the school that day.

All four made it out.

So did John's father, Jim, the school janitor, who fought his way through the smoke and heat to rescue dozens of children on the north wing's burning second floor.

Despite his heroism, Jim Raymond served as a central figure in the inquest conducted by the Cook County Coroner's jury after the fire. Though never charged, he could never fully shake accusations that the fire was caused by his negligence.

Three years later, a 13-year-old former student of the school confessed to starting the fire, later recanting that confession.

In their 1996 book, "To Sleep with the Angels," David Cowan and John Kuenster write that despite strong evidence, Judge Alfred Cicella, an Italian Catholic, "knew that if he found the youth responsible for the school fire, it would be tantamount to issuing a death sentence." Additionally, "a finding of guilt against the boy would surely create a legal headache for the archdiocese."

Jim Raymond was never officially cleared.

"We didn't really talk about it with him," John Raymond said. "I'd hear him talking about it during the middle of the night with my mother. It was very emotional."

Nor, Raymond said, did he talk about his experiences in the fire much with his sons, Mark and Jason, whom he brought up in Mount Prospect, sending them to St. Emily Elementary School and St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights.

"I liked Emily's because of the fact you could get right out of your class and go outside," he said.

St. Viator, a three-story building constructed shortly after the Our Lady of Angels fire, made him more nervous.

"I looked at the levels. I knew that Jason would jump, and I didn't know about Mark," he said.

"I always told them to look for the exit. Not just the first one, but the second one and the one after that. In a split second everything can turn to hell. I live with that thought in mind."

Annette Szafran

When Annette (Danesi) Szafran moved from Chicago to Rolling Meadows in the late 1960s, one of the selling points of the community was its excellent schools.

Still, when it came time for Szafran, an Our Lady of the Angels fire survivor, to enroll her own two children, "The first days they went off to school were terrifying days for me," she said.

At the time of the fire, Szafran was an eighth-grader in Room 209, Sister Davidis Devine's second-floor classroom. Located in the school's north wing, the classroom was one of the first to be hit by the fire. Around 2:40 p.m., one of the boys in the class smelled smoke.

Sister Davidis quickly sprang into action, instructing her 62 students to cram their textbooks at the bottom of the door, Szafran said.

As the classroom began to fill with smoke, other students ran to the windows to scream for help.

A young parish priest, the Rev. Joe Ognibene, and parent Sam Tortarice appeared in the classroom's corner window and began dragging students from the window across the small canopy that covered the exit door on the first floor. Other students jumped to safety from the canopy to the ground below.

As a result of Sister Davidis' quick thinking, only one student, 13-year-old Beverly Ann Burda, was unable to escape the classroom.

Though not physically hurt by the fire, memories haunted Szafran for years.

She always made sure she knew where a building's fire alarms and extinguishers were, and situated herself either close to an exit or on a building's ground level for an easy escape.

She hesitated to make friends for fear that she'd only lose them.

Szafran also found herself afraid her own children wouldn't be able to deal with a disaster. "I told my children the story of (the fire) thinking I could reinforce their bravery to deal with a catastrophe, should they be caught in one," she said.

She warned her son and daughter to be prepared to think unconventionally.

"In fire drills, they never tell you what do you do if you can't go down those stairs. What's your other means of access? Do you know where the extinguisher is at? Try to think outside the box."

The Szafran children attended elementary and middle schools in Rolling Meadows that were one-story buildings.

But when it came time for high school, Szafran said she was panicked by the fact that newly-built Rolling Meadows High School did not feature windows that could be fully opened by its students.

"I kept thinking to myself, 'What if there's a fire?' It drove me crazy for more than four years. I used to panic all the time. I would pass the school and always pray, 'My God, please let it be a safe day for my children and for all of the students.'"