Many of these historical fires led to the creation of fire codes and changes in the fire code.
Cocoanut Grove Fire
November 28, 1942
The Cocoanut Grove was a restaurant/supper club (nightclubs did not officially exist in Boston), built in 1927 and located at 17 Piedmont Street, near Park Square, in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. Piedmont Street was a narrow cobblestoned street (now paved) located near the Park Square theater district, running from Arlington Street to Broadway.
The Cocoanut Grove had been very popular in the late 1920's, due to Prohibition, but had fallen on hard times during the 1930's. It became very popular once again during the early years of World War II. In 1942 the owner for the three years previous years had been a lawyer named Barnet (Barney) Welansky. The Grove was THE place to be in 1942. The building was a single-story structure, with a basement beneath. The basement contained a bar, called the Melody Lounge, along with the kitchen, freezers, and storage areas. The first floor contained a large dining room area and ballroom with a bandstand, along with several bar areas separate from the ballroom. The dining room also had a retractable roof for use during warm weather to allow a view of the moon and stars. The main entrance to the Cocoanut Grove was via a revolving door on the Piedmont Street side of the building.
On Saturday, November 28, 1942, the powerful Boston College (BC) football team had played Holy Cross College (HC) at Fenway Park. In a great upset of that period, HC beat BC by a score of 55-12. College bowl game scouts had attended the game in order to offer BC a bid to the 1943 Sugar Bowl game, a bowl BC had previously won on January 1, 1941. As a result of the rout a BC bowl game celebration party scheduled for the Grove that evening was canceled. BC later accepted a bid to play in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1943, subsequently losing to the University of Alabama.
A famous Hollywood cowboy movie star, Buck Jones (real name Charles Gebhart)(photo right), was traveling the country on a War Bond campaign, had attended the BC-HC football game with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Despite his reluctance due to illness, Buck was persuaded by movie agents to have dinner that evening at the Grove.
At about 10:15PM that evening, a busboy had been ordered by a bartender to fix a light bulb located at the top of an artificial palm tree in the corner of the basement Melody Lounge. It is believed that the bulb had been unscrewed by a patron desiring more intimacy with his date. Due to the lack of light in the area of the palm tree, the busboy lit a match in order to locate the socket for the light bulb.
A moment later, several patrons thought they saw a flicker of a flame in the palm tree of the ceiling decorations. As they watched, they saw the decorations change color and appeared to be burning, but without a noticeable flame. After several moments, the palm tree burst into flames and the bartenders tried to extinguish the fire with water and seltzer bottles. Some patrons started for the only public exit from the Melody Lounge, a four-foot wide set of stairs leading to the Foyer on the first floor. As other furnishings ignited, a fireball of flame and toxic gas raced across the room toward the stairs. A wild panic ensued and attempts to open the emergency exit door at the top of the stairs were not successful. The fireball traveled up the stairs and burst into the Foyer area, where coatrooms, restrooms and the main entrance were located. Amid cries of "Fire, Fire", customers quickly moved to toward the exit. After a small number of people exited, the revolving door became jammed due to the crush of panicked patrons. Observers outside could only watch in horror as relatives and friends were crushed by the weight of the crowd surging against the jammed door.
The fireball then exploded into the Dining Room area, where a majority of the patrons were crowded together into small chairs and tables, awaiting the start of the 10PM show, already fifteen minutes late. It was later estimated that more than 1000 persons were inside the Grove at the time of the fire. As with the Melody Lounge, panic ensued and customers attempted to find an exit. Unfortunately, many exits were either locked shut or were not easily indentified or accessed by the crowd. The fire now had complete control of the premises, with a tremendous rise in temperature and high levels of toxic gas.
In a strange coincidence, at 10:15PM, the Boston Fire Department received and transmitted Box 1514, located at Stuart and Carver Streets, located about three blocks from the Cocoanut Grove. Upon arrival and investigation, firefighters found an automobile fire on Stuart Street. After quickly extinguishing the fire, a firefighter noticed what appeared to be smoke coming from the Cocoanut Grove. As they began to investigate, bystanders ran toward them to report the fire. Upon arrival at the Grove, firefighters found a heavy smoke condition emanating from the entire building, with both patrons and employees escaping from the building. At 10:20PM, the Boston Fire Alarm Office (FAO) received Box 1521, Church and Winchester Streets, apparently pulled by a civilian bystander. The fire chief at the scene ordered his aide to skip the Second Alarm and request a Third Alarm, via fire alarm telegraph, from Box 1521, which was transmitted at 10:23PM, followed by a Fourth Alarm at 10:24PM. A Fifth Alarm was transmitted at 11:02PM.
The Boston Fire Department Running Card for Box 1521, in effect at the time of the Cocoanut Grove Fire, is below. The response to each of five alarms is read horizontally from left to right.
The small, congested streets in the area of the Grove quickly became clogged with fire apparatus and other emergency vehicles. The fire was extinguished in a matter of minutes, but the damage had already been done. Rescue operations began immediately, but the full horror of what awaited the firefighters inside the building was not fully realized for a period of time. Many patrons who were able to exit under their own power collapsed in the street and stacks of bodies, both living and dead, were buried shoulder-high at many of the exits. Getting inside to help proved nearly as difficult as getting out.
Many patrons were aided in escaping by following employees through the dark back corridors (the lights had gone out shortly after the fire started), while others hid in the giant refrigerators and meat lockers. Others were able to open several concealed exit doors from the Dining Room. However, due to the rapid spread of the fire, the intense heat and toxic smoke, many patrons inside the Grove never had a chance. An exit door in the newly-opened, but officially unlicensed 'New Lounge' allowed for the escape of some patrons. However, because the door was installed as an inward-opening door, the rush and weight of those fleeing the fire caused the door to shut, cutting off an important escape route. Other employees escaped through windows in various parts of the Grove, principally because they knew their way around in the back areas.
When the magnitude of the disaster was realized, an urgent call for help was issued. Navy, Army, Coast Guard and National Guard personnel were called in to assist in the evacuation and removal of the injured. Newspaper delivery trucks, taxis, and any other means were used to transport the injured. In an interesting twist of fate, area hospitals had practiced a disaster drill the week before the fire. Despite the drill, the majority of the injured were taken to Boston City Hospital (BCH). Many others were taken to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Orther area hospitals received some victims, and could have taken more under a more coordinated victim evacuation plan. BCH received 300 victims in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds. This volume exceeds the treatment rate encountered in London during the Blitz. MGH received 114 victims in two hours. Off-duty staffs were called in at both BCH and MGH, while volunteers provided additional assistance.
A temporary morgue was established in film distribution garage nearby the Grove. A number of presumed dead victims were sent directly to either the Northern Mortuary or Southern Mortuary. Several presumed dead victims, dropped off at the morgue, were actually alive. They were moved to the hospital and survived. At the morgues, staff and volunteers worked to identify the deceased. Identifying female victims was difficult because personal identification was usually kept in purses or handbags, which became separated from the owners in the panic and confusion of the fire.
Cocoanut Grove owner Barney Welansky had suffered a heart attack two days prior to the fire. While injured patrons of his establishment were being treated in the lobby of MGH, Welansky was upstairs resting in a bed. Buck Jones, who did not survive after lingering for two days, was among the victims sent to MGH. Doctors and nurses worked to save the injured, while other personnel worked to identify the victims.
Treatment of burns and internal injuries on such as massive scale caused medical personnel to adopt newly developed methods of care. Some methods had been well tested, while others had not. The first recorded general (non-test patients) use of penicillin to fight infection on burn victims occurred at MGH on December 2, 1942.
A 'soft' technique of treating burns was tried at MGH, under the leadership of Dr. Oliver Cope, by treating the affected skin areas with a solution of boric petroleum. Purple dyes were used at BCH to coat the skin and to fight infection. Skin grafts were used to help in the healing process. In all, advances in burn treatment were made in four categories: fluid retention; prevention infection; treating respiratory trauma; skin surface and surgical management. It was discovered that many victims, both at the scene and at the hospital, succumbed to pulmonary edema. The edema was caused by breathing-in toxic smoke and gases containing 'pyrolysis', which was caused by the burning of the furniture and furnishings inside the Grove.
In the aftermath of the fire, investigations were conducted by several agencies. Fire Commissioner William Reilly's probe started on Sunday, November 29. Testimony was heard from many witnesses as to the facts surrounding the disaster. Most believed that the busboy was responsible, but others believed the cause was electrical. A Grand Jury would later indict ten persons, but the only person convicted of a crime was the owner, Barney Welansky, on one count of manslaughter. He was sentence to 12-15 years in Charlestown State Prison. Due to an advanced cancer condition, he was pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin after serving 3 ? years. He died in 1947, at age 50, several months after his release from prison.
Building codes were amended in the city and elsewhere. Revolving doors were outlawed (later reinstated when a revolving door is placed between two outward-opening exit doors). Exit doors were to be clearly marked, be unlocked from within, and free from blockage by screen, drapes, furniture or business supplies. Use of non-combustible decorations and building materials was ordered, as was the placement of emergency lighting and sprinklers. Popular lore has it that the name 'Cocoanut Grove' was outlawed in the city of Boston. That did not occur, however no business since the fire has proposed or been licensed to use the name 'Cocoanut Grove'.
The final death count established by Commissioner Reilly was 490 dead and 166 injured. The number of injured was a count of those treated at a hospital and later released. Many other patrons were injured but did not seek hospitalization. As the years went by, the recognized number of fatalities became 492. This count of dead in a single fire event is exceeded only by Chicago's Iroquois Theatre Fire of December 30, 1903 which killed 603 persons, mostly children. Also, the attacks September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York killed approximately 2,750 persons, but the event was a combination fire and collapse event.
The lessons of the Cocoanut Grove are with us every day. Exits blocked or locked, smoking and use of matches, overcrowding, flammable materials within buildings and a lack of sprinklers and smoke detectors. Hardly a person in Boston or New England during the 1940's could be found who did not have a friend or relative who wasn't at the Grove that night, or had planned to go, or had left before the fire started, or wasn't affected by this tragedy. The question then and now is: "Can this happen again"? The answer is yes, it can and will happen again. The 'Station Nightclub Fire' in West Warwick, RI, on February 20, 2003 claimed the lives of 100 persons and injured approximately 200 others. Many of the same causes and lessons experienced at the Cocoanut Grove caused this tragedy.
The site of the Cocoanut Grove has been dramatically changed over the years since 1942. With the erection of hise-rise hotel/theatre complex, the streets around Piedmont Street were altered. Broadway now only runs two blocks from Melrose Street to Piedmont Street. Shawmut Street now makes a ninety-degree turn and intersects with Piedmont Street, near the location of the Cocoanut Grove's revolving door. The hotel now covers most of the land area where the Cocoanut Grove stood. A bronze memorial plaque was placed in the brick sidewalk in 1993 by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association and a marker was placed on the wall of the hotel by the Bostonian Society.
A number of books, research studies, and literary articles have been written about the Cocoanut Grove Fire over the years. The Bibliography section below lists sources of this information.
- Reilly, William Arthur, Boston Fire Commissioner. Report concerning the Cocoanut Grove Fire, November 28, 1942. Boston: City of Boston Printing Dept., 1944. Official Report
- Benzaquin, Paul. Holocaust! The shocking story of the Boston Cocoanut Grove fire. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1957.
- Benzaquin, Paul. Fire in Boston's Cocoanut Grove: Holocaust! :Boston: Branden Press, 1967.
- Vahey, John P. Design for Disaster. Cocoanut Grove Fire, November 28, 1942. Boston: Boston Sparks Association, 1982.
- Keyes, Edward. Cocoanut Grove. New York: Atheneum, 1984.
- Grant, Casey C. Last dance at the Cocoanut Grove. Boston: NFPA Journal, May/June, 1991.
- Beller, Doug and Sapochetti, Jennifer. Searching for answers to the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942. Boston: NFPA Journal, May/June, 2000.
- Schorow, Stephanie. The Cocoanut Grove Fire. Beverly, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2005 Commonwealth Editions Link
- Esposito, John C. Fire in the Grove. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2005.
Beachview Rest Home Fire Keansburg NJ
January 10, 1981
Twenty persons were killed and 13 others were missing and feared dead early yesterday in a fire of undetermined origin that roared through a two-story brick and stucco home for the elderly in Keansburg, N.J.
At least 78 of the 111 residents escaped, but 17 were injured, two critically. The heat of the blaze was so intense that it drove back firemen trying to rescue residents.
Many of those who died were roused from sleep by staff members in time to get out, but returned to their beds or wasted critical seconds trying to dress as the flames drew near and enveloped them, the authorities said. Confusion in the Smoke
Some of the victims were described as senile. Others were said to have been sedated by medication and virtually helpless or too confused or terrified to understand what was happening in the din of jangling alarms and billowing smoke and flames.
Some, a priest said, may have ''just given up in the face of the danger.'' ''It was bad - it was a hell house,'' Jose Medina, a volunteer medic, said of the conflagration that engulfed the 54-room Beachview Rest Home a block off the beachfront in Keansburg, a Monmouth County community 15 miles south of Manhattan on a spit of land that juts into Raritan Bay just across from the southern shore of Staten Island.
One elderly man, his nightclothes aflame, leaped from a second floor window and was found dead in front of the building, clutching a window screen. Another man who apparently jumped from a rear window was found dead in the snow outside. Both were badly burned. Floor Collapses in Blaze
As flames and heavy smoke leaped from windows and rushed through the home, others who died were trapped in bedrooms and hallways on the second floor, which collapsed during firefighting efforts.
It was the second major fire in the metropolitan area in a little over a month, and the second in a Monmouth County special-care facility in six months. On Dec. 4, 26 persons were killed in a blaze at Stouffer's Inn in Westchester County, and 23 persons, many mentally handicapped, died last July 26 when flames destroyed the Brinley Inn, a nursing home in Bradley Beach, 15 miles southeast of Keansburg.
Through much of the day, as firemen searched the charred and smoking rubble for bodies, frightened relatives were left in an agony of doubt over the fate of the missing. Late in the day, however, there appeared to be little hope for those unaccounted for.
The Monmouth County Medical Examiner, Dr. Stanley M. Becker, put the death toll at 31. The County Prosecutor, Alexander D. Lehrer, said at a news conference, however, that 20 bodies had been found by nightfall, when the search for bodies was discontinued for the evening.
Noting that ''parts of bodies'' had been found in the rubble, he said identification would be difficult and might take several days to complete. Thirteen residents were missing and believed dead, he pointed out, raising the probability that 33 persons were dead in the blaze. Smoke Fells Four Firemen
At least four firefighters were felled by smoke as hundreds of volunteer firemen from a half-dozen surrounding communities battled the blaze for more than three hours. The building, except for a small wing, was reduced to a smoldering shell by dawn.
Mr. Lehrer, the Prosecutor, said there were no apparent legal violations in the home, a 75-year-old former hotel and nightclub that was converted into a rest home in 1966.
But Mr. Lehrer said that a new state law requiring the installation of sprinkler systems in facilities like Beachview had been waived for the home last September by Dr. Solomon Goldberg, director of licensing, certification and standards for the New Jersey Department of Health. He said he did not know why the waiver had been granted.
Mr. Lehrer said that a Health Department regulation covering fire safety systems in homes for the elderly had required sprinkler systems in buildings of three stories or more. He added that a new law, effective last September, applied the sprinkler requirement to two-story buildings offering licensed shelter care, like Beachview.
The state Health Commissioner, Dr. Joanne Finley, said last night, however, that there had been no change in the law, contrary to what Mr. Lehrer had said. She said that shelter-care facilities like Beachview were not required to have sprinklers unless they were at least three stories tall.
It was unclear whether the lack of sprinklers had contributed to the tragedy. The prosecutor said, however, that this would be examined in an investigation by his office and state police and fire marshals.
In a news conference, the home's owner, Francis Cappodona, said that no sprinklers had been installed because none was required under state codes governing this type of facility. ''Our building totally complied with the state fire code for this type of building,'' he said.
The home, which is licensed by the state Health Department, was not technically a nursing home, which is a facility licensed to handle patients in need of close medical attention, but it was more than a mere boarding house.Officials said it was a combination of ''shelter-care facility,'' providing room and board for 75 ambulatory residents in the twostory front portion, and an ''intermediate care facility,'' in which medication and other needs were filled for 36 residents in a onestory rear wing. Intermediate care is a step lower than that provided in a fully licensed nursing home, officials said.
The Beachview passed a state Health Department inspection last July, according to Amy Schemelia, a department spokesman. It also passed at least one local fire inspection within the past year, according to Frank DiGangi, the chief of Keansburg's Volunteer Fire Department. Crash Bars on Doors
Mr. Cappadona, the home's owner, said there were seven exits, all equipped with so-called crash bars that opened doors easily from the inside. Only six exits were apparent from the outside, however: the main front door, one in the rear on the first floor, one on the second floor leading to an outside staircase and three in a rear wing.
Mr. Cappadona said that heat and smoke detectors had been installed in all bedrooms, hallways, closets, recreation rooms and dining and kitchen areas as well as the basement, as required by state codes, and he said these had functioned properly and that the staff had roused and evacuated residents in accordance with bimonthly fire drills.
It was unclear how, or precisely when and where, the fire began, though officials said it may have started in the first floor dining area near the front and up to an hour before flames were noticed.
Fire Chief DiGangi said that the fire had been discovered by Sgt. Raymond O'Hare of the Keansburg Police Department on routine patrol in his car. He was said to have seen flames and to have turned in the alarm at 3:57 A.M.
But one neighbor, William Clayton, 30, said he had spotted ''a flame flicker in a window'' as he left for work at 3:50 A.M. and ran over and banged on the locked front door. He said no alarms were ringing as a staff member came and ''fumbled with keys'' to open it.
At that point, Mr. Clayton said, he saw the staff member manually turn on an alarm, and the evacuation began. This suggested that heat and smoke detectors had not automatically alerted the home, as the owner had contended.
Another couple, Fred and Edna Garrison, who live five doors away, reported having smelled smoke as early as 3 A.M. They said they thought it was from a wood-burning stove in a home between theirs and the Beachview, however. Most of Survivors Exit Quickly
Within six to eight minutes of Sergeant O'Hare's report, 40 firemen were on the scene, Chief DiGangi said. Even as they arrived, however, flames were engulfing the front of the building and most of the 78 sobbing and shivering survivors and a half dozen employees were already making their way out through rear fire exits and an exterior stairway, hobbling into subzero cold.
Most were found huddling outside, some naked and cloaked only in blankets, others standing in flimsy nightgowns or pajamas, their faces streaked with soot and twisted with fear.
''It was unbelievable,'' said 67-year-old Nick Naumetz. ''The smoke, the flames, the sirens ....'' As scores of fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles raced to the scene, a dozen of the injured were taken to Bayshore Community Hospital in Holmdel, where two persons, Andrew Sczeliga, 74 years old, and Richard Bols, 80, were admitted in critical condition with respiratory and cardiac problems. Others were taken for treatment to Riverview Hospital in Red Bank and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in nearby Lyons.
Uninjured survivors were taken by bus to a local fire station, where, amid cots and a makeshift kitchen, scenes of suffering and sorrow unfolded during the day, along with an occasional burst of joy as relatives found survivors. Some were taken to stay with relatives; others were housed in nearby nursing homes. Search Suspended for Night
Anxious relatives of the home's residents, meantime, went to a makeshift morgue in a rescue squad station and flooded the Keansburg police station with calls from across the country as firemen continued searching the charred and smoldering ruins for bodies.
Although they suspended their search in the rubble for the evening, the authorities continued to search for 13 missing residents in homes nearby and in calls to relatives of the rest home's residents.
Authorities said it was possible that some residents of the home had escaped and had been picked up by relatives or taken in by neighborhood people.
It was a day of charity for Keansburg. Blankets, sheets, food, clothing and other provisions were supplied by churches, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and townspeople.
The community was a summer resort until the late 1950's, when New Yorkers and residents of northern New Jersey traveled to Jersey beaches by rail and back roads. The city still has beachfront arcades and tawdry amusement areas, but these contrast sharply with the modest homes, many of them winterized bungalows, of what is now a predominanty working-class community of 10,680 people.
Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, December 1, 1958
A fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels School shortly before classes were to be dismissed on Monday, December 1, 1958, in the basement near the foot of a stairway in the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois. The elementary school was operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and had an enrollment of approximately 1600 students. A total of 92 pupils and 3 nuns ultimately died when smoke, heat, fire, and toxic gasses cut off their normal means of escape through corridors and stairways. Many more were injured when they jumped from second-floor windows which, because the building had an English basement, were nearly as high as a third floor would be on level ground (c. 25 ft.).
The disaster was the lead headline story in American, Canadian, and European newspapers. Pope John XXIII sent his condolences from the Vatican in Rome. The severity of the fire shocked the nation and surprised educational administrators of both public and private schools. The disaster led to major improvements in standards for school design and fire safety codes.
Before the fire
Our Lady of the Angels was an elementary school comprising kindergarten through eighth grades. It was located at 909 North Avers Avenue in the Humboldt Park area on Chicago's West Side, on the northeast corner of West Iowa Street and North Avers Avenue (Some sources describe the school as "in Austin"). The neighborhood had originally been heavily Irish-American, but had gradually developed in the first half of the twentieth century into a largely Italian-American middle class community. The area was also home to several other first-, second-, and third-generation immigrant groups, including Polish Americans, German Americans, and Slavic Americans. Most of the families in the immediate neighborhood were Roman Catholic.
The school was part of a large Roman Catholic parish that also consisted of a church, a rectory, which was adjacent to the church, a convent of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was across the street from the school on Iowa Street, and two buildings one block east on Hamlin Avenue referred to by the parish as Joseph Hall and Mary Hall respectively, which housed kindergarten and first-grade classes. The Hamlin Avenue buildings were not involved in the fire, and aside from some minor smoke inhalation problems (no deaths or serious injuries), neither were the first floor of the north wing, the entire south wing, or the annex. The total of the devastation was confined to the second floor of the north wing. The north wing was part of a two-story structure built in 1910, but remodeled several times over the years. That wing originally consisted of a first-floor church and a second-floor school. The entire building became a school when a new, much larger church was opened in 1939. A south wing also dating from 1939 was built and was later connected in 1951 by an annex to the north wing. The two original buildings and the annex formed a U-shape, with a narrow fenced courtyard between.
Allowing for a grandfather clause that did not require schools to retrofit to a new standard if they already met previous regulations, the school legally complied with the state of Illinois and city of Chicago fire codes of 1958 and was generally clean and well-maintained; nonetheless, several fire hazards existed. Each classroom door had a glass transom above it, which provided ventilation into the corridor but also permitted flames and smoke to enter once heat broke the glass. The school had one fire escape. The building had no automatic fire alarm, no rate-of-rise heat detectors, no direct alarm connection to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells, and no heavy-duty fire doors from the stairwells to the second floor corridor. At the time, fire sprinklers were primarily found in factories or in new school construction, and the modern smoke detector did not become commercially available until 1969.
In keeping with city fire codes, the building had a brick exterior to prevent fires from spreading from building-to-building as in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. However, its interior was made almost entirely of combustible wooden materials—stairs, walls, floors, doors, roof, and cellulose fiber ceiling tiles. Moreover, the floors had been coated many times with both flammable varnish and petroleum-based waxes. There were only two (unmarked) fire alarm switches in the entire school, and they were both in the south wing. There were four fire extinguishers in the north wing, each mounted seven feet off the floor, out of reach for many adults and virtually all of the children. The single fire escape was near one end of the north wing, but to reach it required passing through the main corridor, which in this case rapidly became filled with suffocating smoke and superheated gases. Students hung their flammable winter coats on hooks in the hallway rather than in metal lockers. There were no limits to the number of students in a single classroom, and because of the post WW II "baby boom" this number sometimes reached as many as 64 students. The school did not have a fire alarm box outside on the sidewalk, the nearest one being a block and a half away. With its 12-foot ceilings and an English basement that extended partially above ground level, the school's second-floor windows were 25 feet above the ground, making jumping from them extremely risky, exacerbated by the fact that the grade surface under all windows was concrete or crushed rock.
Outbreak and reaction
The fire began in the basement of the older north wing between about 2:00 p.m. and 2:20 p.m CST. Classes were due to be dismissed at 3:00 p.m. Ignition took place in a cardboard trash barrel located a few feet from the northeast stairwell. The fire smoldered undetected for approximately 20 minutes, gradually heating the stairwell and filling it with a light grey smoke that later would become thick and black, as other types of combustibles became involved. At the same time it began sending superheated air and gasses into an open pipe chase very near the source of the fire. The pipe chase made an uninterrupted conduit up to the cockloft above the second floor classrooms (see "Evacuation" below).
The smoke began to fill the second-floor corridor, but remained unnoticed for a few minutes. At approximately 2:25 p.m., three eighth grade girls, Janet Delaria, Frances Guzaldo, and Karen Hobik, returning from an errand, came up a different staircase to return to their second-floor classroom in the north wing. Of those three girls, only Janet Delaria survived the fire. The girls encountered thick grayish smoke, making them cough loudly. They hurriedly entered the rear door of Room 211 and notified their teacher, Sister Mary Helaine O'Neill, who was not yet aware of the smoke. O'Neill got up from her desk and began lining up her students to evacuate the building. When she opened the front door of the classroom moments later to enter the hallway, the intensity of the smoke caused O'Neill to deem it too dangerous to attempt escape down the stairs leading to Avers Avenue on the west side of the building. She remained inside the classroom with her students to await rescue. The fire continued to strengthen, and several more minutes elapsed before the school's fire alarm rang.
About this same time, a window at the foot of the stairwell shattered due to the intense heat, giving the smoldering fire a new oxygen supply. This burst of heat also ignited a 30-inch by 24-foot roll of material, described by the fire chief in his report as "tarred building paper", stored in the area, which, along with the petroleum based waxes on the floors, caused the thick, oily black smoke that was believed responsible for so many of the smoke inhalation deaths in the building. The wooden staircase burst into flames and, acting like a chimney, sent hot gases, fire, and very thick, black smoke swirling up the stairwell.
At approximately the same time, the school’s janitor, James Raymond, saw a red glow through a window while walking by the building. After running to the basement furnace room, he viewed the fire through a door that led into the stairwell. After instructing two boys who were emptying trash baskets in the boiler room to leave the area, Raymond rushed to the rectory and asked the housekeeper to call the fire department. He then ran back to the school to begin evacuation via the fire escape. The two boys meanwhile returned to their class and warned their lay teacher, which prompted her and another teacher to lead their students out of classrooms in the annex area of the second floor. The teachers had looked in vain for the school principal before deciding to act on their own to vacate the school. Unknown to them, the principal was in the other wing, covering a class that had an absent teacher that day.
As they left the building, a teacher pulled the fire alarm, but it did not ring. Several minutes later, after leaving her students in the church, she returned to the school and attempted to activate the alarm again. This time, the alarm rang inside the school, but was not automatically connected to the fire department. By this time, however, the students and teachers in the north wing classrooms on the second floor were essentially trapped, whether they knew about the fire or not.
Despite Raymond's visit to the rectory soon after 2:30 p.m. to spread the alert, there was an unexplained delay before the first telephone call from the rectory reached the fire department at 2:42 p.m. One minute later, a second telephone call was received from Barbara Glowacki, the owner of a candy store on the alley along the north wing.
Glowacki had noticed flames in the northeast stairwell after a passing motorist, Elmer Barkhaus, entered her store and asked if a public telephone was available to call the fire department. Police initially thought this 61-year-old man was a suspect in the blaze until Barkhaus voluntarily came forward and explained himself. Glowacki used her private telephone in her apartment behind the store to notify authorities.
The first floor landing was equipped with a heavy wooden door, which effectively blocked the fire and heat from entering the first floor hallways. However, the northeast stairwell landing on the second floor had no fire blocking door. As a result, there was no barrier to prevent the spread of fire, smoke, and heat through the second floor hallways. The western stairwell landing on the second floor had two substandard corridor doors with glass panes propped open (possibly by a teacher) at the time of the fire. This caused further drafts of air and an additional oxygen supply to feed the flames. Two other doors were chained open when they should have been closed; these doors were at the first and second floor levels leading into the annex. The upper door was quickly closed, but the lower one remained open throughout the fire.
As the fire consumed the northeast stairway, a pipe chase running from the basement to the cockloft above the second floor false ceiling had been feeding superheated gases for some minutes on a direct route to the attic. The building's old roof had been re-coated numerous times, and had become very thick. Consequently, the heat of the fire was not able to burn quickly through the roof. If it had, it would have opened a hole that would have served to vent much of the smoke and gasses. Eventually, as the temperature continued to rise in the enclosed space, the wood of the cockloft itself flashed over.
The fire then swept down through the hallway ceiling's ventilation grates into the second floor corridor as it flashed through the cockloft above the classrooms. Glass transom windows above the doors of each classroom broke as the heat intensified, allowing superheated gasses and thick black smoke in the hallway to enter the classrooms. By the time the students and their teachers in the second floor classrooms realized the danger (and several of the rooms, until that moment, did not realize the danger) their sole escape route into the hallway was impassable. The second floor of the North Wing had become a perfect fire trap.
For 329 children and 5 teaching nuns, the only remaining means of escape was to jump from their second floor windows to the concrete or crushed rock 25 feet below, or to wait for the fire department to arrive and rescue them. Recognizing the trap they were in, some of the nuns encouraged the children to sit at their desks or gather in a semicircle and pray. But smoke, heat, and flames quickly forced them to the windows. One nun, Sister Mary Davidis Devine, ordered her students in Room 209 to place books and furniture in front of her classroom doors, and this helped to slow the entry of smoke and flames until rescuers arrived. Out of the 55 students in Room 209, eight escaped with injuries, and two died; Beverly Burda, the last student remaining in the room, had evidently passed out from smoke inhalation, and died when the roof collapsed. Another student, Valerie Thoma, died at a hospital on March 10, 1959, as a result of her injuries.
Fire department units arrived within four minutes of being called, but by then the fire had been burning unchecked for possibly as much as 40 minutes. It was now fully out of control. The fire department was then hampered because they had been incorrectly directed to the rectory address around the corner at 3808 W. Iowa Street; valuable minutes were lost repositioning fire trucks and hose lines once the true location of the fire was determined. Additional firefighting equipment was summoned rapidly, as the fire situation was quickly upgraded to "five alarm" (all available equipment and units). In 1959 the National Fire Protection Association’s report on the blaze exonerated the rapid response of the Chicago Fire Department and its initial priority to rescue pupils rather than merely fight the flames.
The south windows of the north wing overlooked a small courtyard surrounded by the school on three sides, and a seven-foot iron picket fence on the fourth side facing Avers Avenue. Because of earlier problems with vandalism on the property, the gate in the fence was routinely kept locked. Firemen could not get ladders to the children at the south windows without first breaking through the gate. They spent two anxious minutes battering the gate with sledgehammers and a ladder before they managed to smash it by backing a fire truck into the gate. The locked gate delayed the rescues of rooms 209 and 211.
Firemen began rescuing children from the second-floor windows, but nightmare conditions in some of the classrooms had already become unbearable. Children were stumbling, crawling, and fighting their way to the windows, trying to breathe and escape. Many jumped, fell, or were pushed out the windows before firemen on ladders could reach them. Children jumped with their hair and clothes on fire. Some died later as a result of the fall, and several more were seriously injured. Many of the smaller children were trapped behind frantic students at the windows. Some younger students who managed to secure a spot at a window were then unable to climb over the high window sills, or were pulled back by others frantically trying to scramble out. The temperature continually increased until flashover occurred in the hallway and several of the classrooms at approximately 2:55 p.m. Firemen struggled desperately to pull students and nuns from windows as those classrooms partially filled with screaming children exploded. Firemen noticed that the white shirts of children in the windows changed color and turned brown. Shortly after the flashover, a wide portion of the school's roof collapsed over rooms 208, 209 and part of 210, and the massive downward rush of heat likely killed several other students and their teachers in rooms 208 and 210 instantly (Room 209 lost only one child, Beverly Burda, to the room itself, and she had been overcome by smoke inhalation before the roof collapsed).
Inside the burning school, a quick-thinking nun rolled petrified children down a stairwell when fear made them freeze. Injured students were rushed to five different hospitals, sometimes in the cars of strangers. Priests from the rectory raced to the scene, grabbing frightened students and escorting them through the smoke to the doors. One of the priests, Father Joseph Ognibene, and Sam Tortorice, a parent of one of the students, were able to rescue most of the students in room 209 by passing them through a courtyard window on the second floor into the annex. Janitor James Raymond, though badly injured himself from a deep glass cut on his arm, worked in tandem with Father Charles Hund to open a locked emergency door leading to a fire escape outside room 207. Thanks to their efforts, all students and their teacher, Sister Geraldita Ennis, were rescued from that room.
In Room 212, located at the opposite end of the hallway from the source of the fire, flames did not actually invade the room, but the toxic smoke and heated gasses penetrated here as much as in any other second floor room, and Room 212 lost just over half of its 55 students and its teacher, Sister Mary Clare Therese Champagne, to asphyxiation. When the Chicago Fire Department's new "snorkel" unit arrived, this is one of the first rooms that it began pouring water into, lowering the temperature inside the room appreciably, and the children who had not been asphyxiated were then rescued by the fire fighters with ladders.
Glowacki took injured children into her candy store beside the school to escape the winter chill while they awaited medical attention. Neighbors and parents raced into the school to rescue students on the lower floor or erect ladders outside that proved to be too short for the second floor. 74-year-old Ed Klock suffered a stroke while attempting to assist the children. Residents of houses along Avers Avenue opened their doors to provide sanctuary and warmth for the children.
Local radio and television reports soon transmitted the news across the city. WGN-AM radio broadcast continuous updates of the fire with Chicago Police Officer Leonard Baldy providing observations from an overhead helicopter. Panicked mothers and fathers left their homes or work places and raced to the school. Mothers pleaded to enter the burning structure. A crowd of more than 5,000 anxious parents and onlookers had to be held back by police lines during the five-alarm fire. This number grew in the late afternoon as news of the disaster spread and bodies of victims were slowly and carefully removed by firemen. It was first hoped that fatalities might be relatively low, under the mistaken belief that the fire alarm had been sounded early enough. The toll climbed quickly once the blaze was partially extinguished and firemen were able to explore the building. National television networks interrupted their regular programming to announce details as the scope of the disaster widened.
Between the delayed discovery and reporting of the blaze and the misdirection of the response units to the wrong address, the firemen arrived too late. Although they rescued more than 160 children from the inferno, many of the students carried out were already dead. Some of the bodies were so badly charred that they broke into pieces while being picked up. In Room 212, none of the bodies found were burned; the children who perished, as well as their teacher, all died of smoke inhalation.
The cause of the fire was never officially determined. In 1962, a boy who was a student at Our Lady of the Angels at the time of the fire confessed to setting the blaze. A family court judge later concluded the evidence was insufficient to substantiate the confession. Officially, the cause of the fire remains unknown.
In 1959 the National Fire Protection Association’s report on the blaze blamed civic authorities and the Archdiocese of Chicago for "housing their children in fire traps" - their words - such as Our Lady of the Angels School. The report noted that both the Chicago School Board and the Archdiocese of Chicago continued to allow some schools to be legally operated despite having inadequate fire safety standards. Although Our Lady of the Angels School had passed a routine fire department safety inspection weeks before the disaster, the school was not legally bound to comply with all 1958 fire safety codes due to a grandfather clause in the 1949 standards. Existing older schools, such as Our Lady of the Angels, were not required to retrofit the safety devices that were required by code in all schools built after 1949.
92 pupils and 3 nuns died when smoke, heat, fire, and toxic gases cut off their normal means of escape through corridors and stairways. Many more were injured when they jumped from second-floor windows.
The funeral for the three nuns took place first. A Requiem Mass was offered in Our Lady of the Angels Church after more than 2,000 parishioners paid their respects to the deceased teachers as the closed caskets lay in repose in the convent. A color guard of 100 policemen and firemen accompanied the coffins into the church. More than 100 nuns from the order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary attended from across Illinois as well as from their main convent in Dubuque, Iowa. The funeral procession had several hundred vehicles. The three teachers were interred side by side in a grave next to other nuns of their religious order at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in suburban Hillside, Illinois.
For 27 of the young victims whose families accepted the offer to participate in it, a Solemn Requiem Mass and funeral service took place at the Illinois National Guard Armory abutting Humboldt Park, as the parish church was not large enough to accommodate the huge crowd. Cardinal Francis Spellman, Archbishop of New York, came to Chicago to lend his support. The families of the other children who were victims of the fire elected to bury their children privately. Many of the young students were buried in the "Shrine of the Holy Innocents" plot at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, which is adjacent to Mount Carmel Cemetery. A monument there lists the names of all 95 victims. Some of the students were buried in other cemeteries: 18 in St. Joseph Cemetery, 18 in St. Adalbert Cemetery, 12 in Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1 in St. Nicholas Cemetery, and 1 in Norway Cemetery in Norway, Michigan.
A relief fund was set up to assist distraught families and to care for injured children in future years. The Chicago metropolitan area rallied to provide support. Hollywood stars such as Jack Benny visited injured children in hospitals. A city newspaper, The Chicago American, devoted its entire front page on December 5, 1958, to photographs of the deceased students under the headline, "Chicago Mourns".
In Vatican City, Pope John XXIII sent a telegram to the Archbishop of Chicago, the Most Reverend Albert Gregory Meyer. The cable read, in part, "We have been profoundly saddened to learn of the tragedy which has befallen the school of Our Lady of the Angels. We express from the heart Our deepest sympathy with the parents. To the families thus sorely stricken We impart Our apostolic benediction ..." Meanwhile, Archbishop Meyer toured the school ruins with Mayor Daley, and he nearly collapsed while visiting the hospital and morgue. Mayor Daley would later be an advocate of fire safety in schools across his city, whether public or private.
The December 16, 1958, issue of Life Magazine printed a major article about the fire, containing many pictures and reconstructed drawings of the classrooms. The first page of the article featured an image of firefighter Richard Scheidt carrying the body of 10-year-old John Michael Jajkowski, Jr. from the building. The photograph of Jajkowski, a fifth grader in Room 212, later served as a fire prevention safety poster nationwide. Jajkowski, an accomplished musician, played the accordion and served as a church choir member, and had expressed a desire to become a priest. Like 25 of his other classmates, John was suffocated by black, oily smoke. Steve Lasker took the photograph of Scheidt and John as the fire department was beginning to achieve control over the fire.
After the Our Lady of the Angels School fire, Percy Bugbee, the president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) said in an interview, "There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded." Sweeping changes in school fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide. Some 16,500 older school buildings in the United States were brought up to code within one year of the disaster. Ordinances to strengthen Chicago's fire code and new amendments to the Illinois state fire code were passed. The National Fire Protection Association estimated that about 68% of all U.S. communities inaugurated and completed fire safety improvements after the Our Lady of the Angels fire, one of which being an increased number of law-mandated fire drills throughout the academic year. In addition, fire investigators came from as far away as London to study the lessons that could be learned.
The City Council of Chicago passed a law requiring that a fire alarm box be installed in front of schools and other public assembly venues. The interior fire alarm systems of these buildings must be connected to the street fire alarm box. Another requirement was that all schools where it was deemed vital would have sprinkler systems installed. However, nine months later, in September 1959, Fire Commissioner Quinn, when interviewed by WNBQ reporter Len O'Connor, admitted that although 400 of the 1040 schools in Chicago at that time had been deemed in critical need of sprinkler systems, only two had actually had sprinklers installed.
OLA students attended classes that were taught by their own teachers in nearby public school facilities, including John Hay School, Rezin Orr School, Ryerson Elementary and Cameron Elementary until the new Our Lady of the Angels School was finished in time for the school year beginning in September 1960.
The ruins of the school were dismantled in 1959 and a new Our Lady of the Angels School, located at 3814 West Iowa Street, was constructed in compliance with the latest required fire safety standards, such as installing a sprinkler system. The modern three-story building with 32 classrooms plus a kindergarten opened in September 1960. Donations from around the world helped to fund the new construction. As a result of a steady decline in enrollment during the 1990s, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the school after the class of 1999 graduated. The archdiocese had previously closed the other buildings of the parish in 1990 and merged OLA with the parish of St. Francis of Assisi.