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52 Years Ago, Tragic Fire Plunged City Into Grief

CHICAGO (WBBM) - Fifty-two years ago Wednesday, just half an hour before classes were to let out for the day, a fire roared through Our Lady of the Angels School on Chicago's West Side.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780's Bob Roberts Reports


The fire heavily damaged the school, at 3808 W. Iowa St., killing 92 students and three teachers.

The fire remains one of the deadliest in Chicago's history.

Those who survived the fire gather each year at Holy Family Church, at 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd., to offer prayers for those who died.

The nation's fire codes were changed to enclose stairwells, install fire doors and require fire alarms directly wired to fire stations. Fire drills became a weekly event in many schools, particularly in Chicago.

The remnants of the old school building was torn down several months after the fire and replaced by a new building. The school closed in 1999, but much of it has been renovated into the Kelly Hall YMCA. Mass is still said in the adjoining church, which was not damaged by the fire, now known as the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.

Those who managed to get out of the wing of the school that burned said that they first realized something was wrong when smoke curled under the classroom doors and wafted through the glass transoms above the doors.

Our Lady Of Angels
Firefighters take students from the fire at Our Lady of Angels School in 1958. (CBS)

The fire began at the foot of a stairwell, raced up the stairwell and through the second floor classrooms.

Bob Early was about to take garbage to the basement down that stairwell from his seventh grade classroom, in room 208, when he noticed smoke coming in under the door. He told the teacher, Sister Mary St. Canice, who was at the rear of the room. She opened the door, smoke billowed in, and she slammed the door.

No alarm had been sounded. The principal had set a policy that allowed only certain staff members to pull an alarm.

Early said that Sister St. Canice at first told the students to sit at their desks, but after a couple of minutes, she urged them toward the windows. Some began to jump. Several men brought ladders, but all proved to short to reach the windows. Early said a friend jumped ahead of him and broke both ankles in the fall. He crouched in the window sill, frozen, till the bricks became too hot to touch and he "sort of fell" to the ground.

When he looked back up he could see flames shooting form the windows of his classroom. Sister Mary St. Canice and a dozen of his classmates were still inside room 208.

Early said after a few moments he got up, walked about a block to a railing in front of a nearby store, and sat down. When a priest spotted him and told him to go home so his parents would not be worried, he stood up and fell on his face. He'd broken a leg in the fall.

Instead, a police officer put him in a squadrol, and he was taken to a nearby hospital, where he remained hospitalized for three weeks as the leg mended.

Early considers himself one of the lucky ones. Today, however, he still has one question that he cannot get out of his mind.

"Why me? Why not them, but me?" he asks.

He says he will probably go to his grave with the question unanswered.

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