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Our Lady tragedy ushered in safety improvements
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff

Mary Ellen Reeves, a survivor of the Our Lady of the Angels school fire 50 years ago, holds a photo of her sister Karen, who was killed in the fire.

 

Ed Lee | Staff Photographer

Matt Plovanich is a survivor of the Our Lady of the Angels fire.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/1/2008 12:06 AM | Updated: 12/1/2008 12:34 PM

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Second of two parts

After a fire at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic grammar school claimed 92 children and three nuns 50 years ago today, the lives of hundreds of families in a close-knit Chicago neighborhood were forever altered.

So were school fire codes.

Our Lady of the Angels, a 48-year-old school, had passed a fire inspection just weeks before the blaze.

Chicago's municipal code at the time required schools built in or after 1949 to have certain safety features, including enclosed exits and fire-safe doors.

Our Lady of the Angels, a two-story building with an almost entirely combustible wooden interior, with open stairwells and exits but without a sprinkler system or a fire alarm that was hard-wired to the fire department, was grandfathered into compliance because it was an older building, constructed in 1910.

"Again, it must be wondered how much longer it will be before the lessons so tragically brought home repeatedly by school disasters are applied to all schools," Chester Babcock and Rexford Wilson wrote in their report for the National Fire Protection Association after the fire.

Dubbing the school a "fire trap," the association urged school and fire authorities to "take affirmative actions to rid their communities of such blights."

Sweeping changes quickly followed.

In 1959, the Chicago City Council voted to change its municipal code. As David Cowan and John Kuenster explained in their 1996 book, "To Sleep with the Angels," public and private city schools were then required to conduct monthly fire drills, to feature fire alarm systems directly linked to the fire department and to have fire alarm boxes within 100 feet of their main entrances.

The fire also prompted the state to develop a new life safety code for schools and to establish a life safety fund.

Changes did not occur only in Illinois. The National Fire Protection Association estimated that nearly 70 percent of the country's schools updated their safety features as a result of the Our Lady of the Angels fire.

Survivors of the devastating blaze knew their children would be safer at schools with these changes.

Still, when it came time to send them off their own sons and daughters, old memories and old fears once again raged within.

In today's second and final installment of our series, staff writer Kerry Lester talks to two more survivors of the Our Lady of the Angels fire.

Matt Plovanich, Chicago

Matt Plovanich was never so proud of his five young children.

During a weekend stay at a Schaumburg hotel in the early 1990s, a couch caught fire in the room below the Plovaniches.

The hotel's fire alarms blared, sparking tears in many young guests.

Not the Plovanich kids.

"They knew what to do," Plovanich said. "They each picked up one stuffed animal, a pillow, and marched outside real calmly, just like we'd practiced."

On Dec. 1, 1958, Matt was a fifth-grader in Sister Geraldita Ennis' second-floor classroom at Our Lady of the Angels.

After smoke began pouring through the transom above the classroom door, the 40 students inside Room 207 found themselves with no way out.

Because it was next to the stairwell, Room 207 was the first room to be confronted by the blaze.

Sister Geraldita usually clipped the classroom's backdoor key to the cincture at the waist of her habit.

That day, she'd left the key back at the convent, not realizing it until smoke filled the room.

"I saw her look down at her waist, realize the key was gone, look up at the ceiling and then hang her head back down," Plovanich said. "We knew then she'd forgotten the key."

After several unsuccessful attempts to break down the back door herself, Sister Geraldita gathered her students in a corner of the room, leading them in the rosary.

At first kneeling, then on their bellies pressing their noses to the heavily varnished wooden floor, "everyone was fighting for good air," Plovanich said.

The repetition of the familiar prayers served to calm the students, some of whom had been crying, others screaming for their parents.

Faced with intense heat burning their backs and black smoke filling their lungs, the only way out of the second-story classroom was jumping from the window.

"When you're 10, the prospect of jumping and facing some life-threatening injuries is almost incomprehensible," he said. "I wrestled internally with this decision I didn't make - I chose to stay there."

Plovanich describes a calm that came over him, a certainty he'd die, until janitor Jim Raymond and the Rev. Charlie Hund got the room's back door open, pulling the students out to safety.

Plovanich was the second to last child to get out of the classroom,

Seconds after he set foot on the second floor fire escape, Room 207 burst into flames, fire shooting out several feet from its windows.

Reaching the ground below, Plovanich found himself walking through the alley where a majority of the carnage was.

"I probably stood there for four or five minutes in amazement. Here were all these kids I'd gone to school with," he said.

Plovanich, a longtime Chicago detective, is now an investigator with the Cook County Sheriff's department. He lives on Chicago's Northwest side.

When it came time to send his eldest son, Joe, off to grammar school, the family lived on the border of two parishes.

Attending one school's open house, "was so reminiscent of OLA. The heavily varnished wood, the baseboards, the glass transoms," Plovanich said. "I told my wife, 'I can't send him here.'"

The Plovanich children ended up attending St. Benedict's, which Matt viewed as a more modern, fire-safe building.

Plovanich taught all of his children, from the age of 4, fire safety drills at home, practicing different scenarios.

"I don't want them to face what I faced, feeling scared to act, second guessing myself," he said.

Over and over, Plovanich would tell his children to have a plan in the back of their minds. "Take a desk, a chair, to break a window. Have an escape route. Know where the exits are. You want to know what you'll do before it happens."

"Don't stay where you're at. Jump. Bones will heal."

Mary Ellen (Hobik) Reeves, Carol Stream

Until 15 years ago, few of Mary Ellen (Hobik) Reeves' colleagues knew she had survived the Our Lady of the Angels fire - the fire that claimed the life of her beloved older sister, Karen.

As a teacher at Roosevelt School in Park Ridge, "The principal there asked me if I could share my experience with the faculty about the importance of fire drills. How important it is for teachers to have something, some sort of plan," she said.

The day of the fire, Reeves was taking a fourth-grade English test when an alarm went off at Our Lady of the Angels. Not smelling smoke, her teacher, Sister Alexis, told the class to keep at the test, that the alarm was a mistake.

"We all thought it was," Reeves said. "There were never fire drills in the middle of winter."

Hearing some commotion in the first-floor hallway, the nun decided "we needed to get out."

Mary Ellen and her class exited the school building in the usual fire-drill manner, walking in front of the church, then turning around and facing the school building.

"When we turned around, it was clear there was something wrong," she said.

Shortly after, she said, the children were told to head home.

Three of the four children in the Hobik Our Lady of the Angels that year: Mary Ellen, sixth-grader Wayne and eighth-grader Karen.

Mary Ellen describes running out of the church without a coat to the family's home five blocks from the school. Her brother arrived at home some time later. Karen was still missing.

Her close-knit family all frantically searched for Karen. But some of the hours after the fire remain a blur to Mary Ellen.

"We lived in a two-flat. I remember being in my grandmother's apartment and we were sitting in her living room," Mary Ellen said. "What I didn't know at the time, but found out after the fact, was that my father was going from hospital to hospital trying to find my sister."

Still not finding her, her father went to the county morgue, where Karen Hobik's body had been identified as that of another child.

"My dad was frantic," Mary Ellen said. "He asked the dad who had just identified his daughter if he could look at (the body)."

A religious medal around the child's neck revealed it was Karen.

"You don't want people to forget," Mary Ellen said. "What happened at Our Lady of the Angels changed school fire codes around the country. But we were never debriefed. It was the 1950s - we never had counseling. We just picked up and tried to move on. Our Lady of the Angels is who we are, and who we'll always be."

When her own children were getting ready to start school, "we went to one of the local Catholic schools to see what the building was like," Reeves said. "I couldn't send my daughter there. It was exactly like OLA was and I just couldn't do it."

Having been on the school's second floor, Reeves said, she remembers looking for fire escapes, and how her children might get out of the building. "I remember thinking I can't send my children here. I don't feel safe."

St. Maria Goretti Elementary School in Schiller Park, which her children attended, "was glass and steel. Glass and steel burn, I understand that," Reeves said. "But it just gave me more comfort than the other school had."

Today, Mary Ellen is principal at Fullerton Elementary School in Addison.

A 28-year teaching veteran, Reeves said teaching on third-floor classrooms "did shake me a little bit."

At Fullerton Elementary, a one-story brick school, Reeves says she stresses safety to her students but keeps it simple. "We keep emphasizing the importance and the seriousness of drills. The bottom line is the kids have to be responsive to what the directions are."

"I think I can get out of my building very easily, and that gives me comfort. That makes me feel safe for the kids," she said.