Our Lady Of The Angels School Fire Remembered 60 Years Ago

Mike Krauser
December 01, 2018 - 4:01 pm

Chicago Fire Department Media

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Sixty years later, the pain is still prevelant for the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Humboldt Park. One of the most devastating tragedies in the history of Chicago, the fire on Dec. 1, 1958, at the Catholic grammar school on the West Side took the lives of 92 students and three nuns.

The city remembered the event and those who lost their lives, bringing alumni, survivors and families of those who died together for a mass and a presentation by historian Historian Jim Gibbons wil at the Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy, 558 W. De Koven.

Gibbons shared the history of the "dreadful day 60 years ago" and gave a passionate speech explaining the tragedy and the culprit — a student who later confessed to lighting the fire starting in a trashcan in the basement. The child was supposedly a pyromaniac and although Gibbons said he does not think the child aimed to kill anyone, it was still a dangerous act that got out of control quickly "big time," he said. 

Those who survived were severely injured because they jumped out from the second-story windows, which were almost just as high as three-story windows at ground level because the school had a raised basement. This is according to the 1998 book "To Sleep With The Angles: The Story of The Fire" written by David Cowan, a journalist who sought to remember the historical trajedy. 

"When they would jump out of the widnow, that's a 25-foot jump," Gibbons said of the surviving students. 

Cardinal Blase Cupich was scheduled to lead a mass at 2 p.m. at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels church at Iowa and Avers. OLA school alum and fire survivor Jonathan Cain, the keyboardist for Journey was also in attendance and performed his song “The Day They Became Angels,” that he wrote about the tragedy. He posed for photos with officials and survivors after the ceremony. You can listen to his song below. 

Chicago Fire Department Media

The commemorations roll into this evening and tomorrow as well. At 6 p.m., WTTW-Channel 11 Prime will air its 2003 Emmy Award-winning documentary “Angels Too Soon,” the story of the fire as told through archival footage and first-hand accounts. The film, narrated by the late John Calloway, also looked at the fire’s aftermath, which would ultimately lead to sweeping nationwide changes in school safety design and fire safety codes.