|Our Lady of the Angels
A historical perspective on school fires
By Thomas M. Cunningham
WTC Staff Writer
In the early 1900’s, the once tiny one-room, single story schoolhouses started to transform into multi-room and multi-story buildings. These structures were built with little or no fire protection or life safety features incorporated into their design.
The reason for this is simple, the technology just did not exist. Another reason for having these factors left out was that most standards and model codes did not exist at the time or that their scope was limited. An ever-increasing population within the community soon contributed to classrooms becoming overcrowded, which gave the appearance of “human stockyards”. These facts combined with the lack of fire protection and life safety features added up to a deadly combination referred to as the “Disaster cocktail”, which had already been stirred.
During a rather routine school
day, one of these schools became a deathtrap for teachers and students
alike. When everyone in the school became aware that a fire had started
within the school, it was too late for escape. The fire had started on
the basement level and made its way up through the brick and wood structure
rapidly due to the use of “balloon” construction. Within moments exiting
the school was useless due to heat, smoke, and flames. Conditions then
deteriorated rapidly and students began to panic.
As a result of this fire having taken place in a school full of children, Americans began to examine, study, and institute fire protection and life safety standards for school structures. New fire laws and standards for construction were enforced. This combined with a new attitude towards establishing safer schools for children was soon to be realized. Unfortunately, loss of life in fires involving school buildings would not end with this blaze. A fire 50 years later at the “Our Lady of the Angels” catholic school in Chicago, would not only claim the lives of the innocent, but, would change once again the standards which our schools would be built and maintained.
The fire and outcome told in our introduction was taken from accounts given of the “Lake View Elementary” school fire. This fire occurred in Collinwood, Ohio in the year 1908 and claimed 175 lives. Other fires involving schools would occur and would claim the lives of both children as well as adults.
On December 24, 1924, grade school children were performing an annual Christmas songfest at the Babb Switch School in Hobart, Oklahoma when fire erupted. A candle placed on the top of a Christmas tree, located on the schools stage fell into the tree branches causing the tree to burst into flames. Parents seeing the fire rushed the stage to rescue the children. The children unaware of why everyone was rushing at them began to retreat. This caused the tree to topple. The play had been taking place in the rear of a one-room schoolhouse, which happened to be the farthest distance from an exit. The fire then forced the children farther to the rear of the stage. This led to the children becoming trapped with no avenue for escape. Parents grabbed children and ran through the flames towards the only exit door. Men arrived and began pulling bodies through the exit door. The door had become jammed due to the onslaught of humanity. Within minutes the building was incinerated along with the loss of thirty-six lives. Most being small children.
The Cleveland Rural Grade School fire happened on May 7, 1923. The fire started on the second story of the building while the students were enacting a play. The auditorium was also located on the second story. At the time all the lights were out except for a kerosene lamp. The lamp was hanging behind gauze like material that was acting as a filter for the light. This was done to give the stage a certain feeling by diffusing the light coming from the lantern. Between acts the stage props were moved and one of the sceneries struck the lantern. The lantern fell and then exploded into flames.
Parents and students, having noticed the fire exited the auditorium and waited in the stairwell and hallway while older students began to fight the fire. Soon the flames were burning unimpeded. Panic ensued. Parents rushed the corridor and stairwell trying to exit the second floor. Parents on the first floor realizing that a fire was burning rapidly on the second floor rushed the stairwell attempting to reach the second floor. People became wedged in the stairwell and were unable to move. The tremendous weight being placed on the ancient structure thus led to catastrophic failure of the stairway. A mother on the second floor began to herd children to the windows were she began to drop and toss them out. This happened only after breaking the locks on the windows. Three hundred people were in the building at the time of the fire. Seventy-six perished: forty-one would be children.
The Cleveland Rural Grade School collapsed within five minutes of the fire starting. In order for collapse in a structure like this, it is evident of one thing, that the building was extremely deteriorated. And with no active fire suppression system the consummation of the building by fire happened fast. A strange footnote to this story is that a new school had already been built, and this was to be the last play held in the school before moving into the new school.
It was a Monday, and the last
hour of school had just begun. As was routine in most schools at this time,
the teachers charged young male students with the task of taking all trash
and excess papers to the basement for disposal by the janitor. One young
boy returned and reported to his teacher in room 206 that he had smelled
an odor of smoke. The teacher of room 206 investigated, she was able to
confirm what the young child had told her. The teacher then proceeded to
room 205 and notified that teacher that there was an odor of smoke in the
school’s corridor. The time was approximately 2:20pm.
As they began to evacuate the building
one of the teachers decided to activate the manual fire alarm. The teacher
pulled the manual station that was approximately 7 feet high on a sidewall.
The manual device resembled a light switch, and upon flicking the switch
the alarm failed to activate. After the children from rooms 205 and 206
had been relocated to the parish rectory the teacher once again returned
and attempted to activate the alarm. On the second attempt the alarm activated.
This alarm was a “local alarm only” and was not hooked to a central system
that would activate and notify the fire department. Eight minutes have
now passed since the smoke was first noticed.
The rate of rise was so great that the flames had and immediate impact on the staircasing. The treads on the steps had an asphalt and rubber tiling on them. This is one of the many contributing factors that added to the fire growth. The fire then spread to the walls, which were covered with combustible finishes, paints and varnishes. During the post-investigation the walls were found to be covered with as much as fourteen layers of coatings such as these. The top two layers were made of an exterior flammable rubberized-plastic paint. The fire then began to spread rapidly up the stairwell while being fed by these flammable coatings.
The first floor of the school was equipped with fire doors. This allowed the heat, smoke, and fire to bypass the first floor and concentrated the force of the fire. This was then funneled to the second floor. The second floor was not equipped with fire doors, which allowed the entrained heat and flames a direct path into the second floor hallway. On the second floor, at least two teachers noticed a sudden rise in heat. This was felt in separate rooms on the second floor. They both contributed this to the janitor adjusting the boiler temperature. Also in the basement was a pipe chase that fed directly into the second floor overhead ceiling area. This allowed heat to collect within the ceiling structure leading to the collection of hot gases. This is believed to have caused a secondary burn or flashover event to occur.
An assistant who was working in the rectory of the church had reported the fire to the central dispatch of the fire department. This happened after the janitor had noticed smoke pouring from the school while returning from an errand. He then rushed to the rectory and requested that someone call the fire department. During the initial call, the assistant having thought the church was on fire had given the address to the dispatcher as being 3808 W. Iowa, the address of the school was actually 909 N. Avers. This mistake in address directed fire apparatus to the church. Companies arrived within three minutes only to find that the church was not the scene of the fire, but that the school was. This required the relocation of the arriving apparatus.
The priest of the parish along with civilians who noticed the fire, attempted to evacuate and rescue children from the school. Many civilians attempted to reach the second floor windows with the use of portable ladders. The rescuers then discovered that they could not reach the second floor, at this time they began to call to the children to jump.
The population of the second floor at the onset of the fire was 329 students and six nuns. All the classrooms had noticed the smoke by now. In two of the classrooms it is believed that the nuns ordered the children to remain seated and to pray that God would send the firemen to save them. Some over the years has disputed this fact. In the book “Blaze: The Forensics of Fire”, Nicholas Faith states that “rumors” spread (after the fire), that the nuns had imposed a fatal inaction on their pupils, by having them pray at their desk when they could have escaped. Nicholas Faith with the use of forensic science has concluded that the children and nuns had no chance to escape from the U-shaped structure.
If the nuns did request the children to pray for divine intervention then it was only short lived. Soon panic set in and chaos became the rule. The heat and flames reached the transoms located above the doors, soon the transom glass began to crack. When the transoms broke this allowed the fire to begin racing across the ceiling area of the classrooms. Flames racing across the ceiling, superheated gases above the ceiling, and combustible ceiling tiles became a disaster cocktail. A flashover occurred due to the combining of these factors.
The children rushed the windows and many began to jump in order to escape a certain death. Escape for the children was hindered due to the bottom ledge of the window being thirty-seven and one-half inches high. This obstacle alone became overwhelming for many children to overcome. Many of the children died instantly, some while still seated at their desks. Others fell dead as their clothes and hair ignited spontaneously while awaiting rescue at the windows sills. Others also perished in their leap from the second story and many others were severely injured.
The fire department arrived at a scene after relocating only to find what has been described as “A great and indescribable horror.” The first in company requested a 5-11 alarm. This request dispatched all the cities medical units to the location of the school fire. The 5-11 request made by the engine company officer was a direct violation of the 5-11 request protocol of the Chicago Fire Department. Civilians and fire department personnel using ground ladders made many attempts at rescuing the children. The roof of the school soon fell inward and further attempts at saving these young lives was an attempt at futility. Any children left in the windows soon disappeared into the flames or vanished from sight.
At 3:45pm, the fire at the “Our Lady of the Angels” school was brought under control. One hour and twenty-five minutes had passed since the fire was first noticed.
One engine company who arrived at the wrong address saw heavy fire conditions coming from a rear stairwell. The Captain ordered his men to attack the fire with a deuce and a half, little did they know that they were suppressing the seat of the blaze. During the investigation, charges were sought against the engine company officer for failure to assist in the rescue. In subsequent findings it was determined that the actions of the engine company were instrumental in “buying time” for rescuers, and through their actions the lives of many were saved.
During the official inquiry into the school blaze, the fire department was accredited with saving 160 children and nuns in the first thirteen minutes. Unofficially the count was closer to two hundred lives that had been saved. This was of little condolence to the firefighters who were haunted, and who still are by the sight and screams of the children who perished within their sight.
After the fire, the Catholic
Church set up a panel to review each case, and reward monetary settlements
to those who had lost children or loved one’s in the fire. This was done
purposely by the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese to avoid lawsuits and
the awarded settlements that would have gone to the families and survivors
of the fire.
During the investigation, many discrepancies were discovered. They included:
For further information and research materials on the “Our Lady of the Angels” school fire see: