Riveting Oral History of City’s Worst School Fire
By Delia O’Hara / Staff Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times
The people who sat down to talk with John Kuenster for his new oral history of the fire at Our Lady of Angels school on Dec. 1, 1958, were drawing on memories that are now half a century old. The result is like opening a box of photographs from a bygone era. There are the nuns in their habits, the well behaved Catholic schoolchildren seated at their old wooden desks in their old wooden school.
But each of the 28 survivors, parents, firefighters, nurses and journalists who spoke to Kuenster for Remembrances of the Angels: 50th Anniversary Reminiscences of the Fire No One Can Forget (Ivan R. Dee, $22.50) holds his own vivid piece of the picture.
Less than half an hour before dismissal time on that cold Monday afternoon, this typical Catholic school in a working-class community on the West Side flashed over into perhaps the worst disaster in Chicago in living memory. Ninety-two children and three nuns died in the fire; 75 more were injured.
The assemblage of all the disparate bits of the story in Remembrances makes for a heartbreaking montage of sorrow, horror, acceptance, regret and anger — and for a page-turner of a book.
“Everybody sees something different,” Kuenster says. “It’s all blended but the truth is there.”
FIGHTING TO LIVE
As children, the survivors watched their friends die, burning up or asphyxiating, their mouths and noses black with soot, and made the decision to try to live. Some of them jumped 35 feet from second-floor classrooms, often to the cement below.
No grief counselors trooped in the next day to help the children cope with what they had seen and felt and experienced; indeed, they were told not to talk about the fire. Parents who lost children were advised to move on with their lives.
The adults who had been in charge at OLA were the subject of intense disapproval after the disaster, but never had the catharsis of a definitive investigation into its cause, let alone the possibility of being exonerated, the survivors say.
The principal, Sr. Mary St. Florence, “never had a chance to tell her side of the story,” recalls Sr. Mary Donatus DeCock, a retired BVM nun who came in from then-Mundelein College in Rogers Park to help out in the aftermath of the fire.
Msgr. William McManus, superintendent of Chicago Catholic schools at the time, “said quite bluntly that he didn’t want to get into any lawsuits,” DeCock told Kuenster.
LATER, MUCH FINGER-POINTING
Families and the public were left to draw their own conclusions. St. Florence was criticized because the fire alarm was not sounded sooner. James Raymond, the school janitor, whose son John speaks in the book, suffered from charges that the fire had started in a cluttered hallway.
Kuenster, who says he has derived great satisfaction from telling this story in two books, agrees that some key pieces are missing from the full picture.
“I was disappointed. The investigation was tepid,” says Kuenster, a former sportswriter for the old Chicago Daily News. “There is some truth that the church failed these kids.”
Being the father of eight children himself, Kuenster identifies with those parents who were “so angry that they didn’t get the complete story about what happened.”
The consensus is that the fire was set “by human hands.” Kuenster says the older children at OLA swiftly identified a fifth-grade boy as the one who started the fire in a basement stairwell, and indeed, interviewees talk about him in the book. The boy went on to set other fires, says Kuenster, who declines to give his name and says he doesn’t know if the individual is dead or alive.
“He was 10,” Kuenster says. “He didn’t know what was going to happen.”
‘WILD ONES GOT OUT’
The fire destroyed OLA (it was later rebuilt), and the survivors went to other schools in the neighborhood. Jean Hart, who was pulled to the school annex from Room 209 on the afternoon of the fire, recalls that when the furnace later backed up at her new school, Orr Elementary, sending smoke through the halls, she “went into overdrive,” racing upstairs to lead the second-graders she oversaw at recess out of their room, down the stairs and out of the building.
“You could not have pulled us (the OLA contingent) back into Orr that day with Clydesdales,” Hart recalls.
More girls died in the OLA fire than boys, more small children than big ones.
“It seems like the real nice kids in our classroom died and the wild ones got out,” says John Lubke, who “wiggled like a snake” to free himself from a pile of children at the windows of Room 211. He was injured jumping, and so was his younger brother.
“If we had gone down a nearby staircase we all would’ve gotten out alive. But the nun said, ‘Say the Act of Contrition.’ And the bad guys in the class said, ‘F— this, get us out of here,” Lubke says in the book.
A BOND CONTINUES EVEN TODAY
Kuenster is happy he has had a chance to tell the story of the fire while people are still alive who remember it. He is disappointed, though, that one or two people who might have shed some light on the fire’s backstory decided not to talk with him.
“There are a lot of questions in my mind,” he says.
The survivors keep up with one another to an unusual degree, Kuenster notes. “They came through something together. A bond formed there,” he says. (A Web site, www.olafire.com, maintains a survivor-and-alumni-board as well as material and boards for the public.)
The fire, he says, “strengthened their feeling for other people. Several of them are in work where they help people — teachers, nurses, doctors.”
Says Lubke, a graduate of Notre Dame University, who owns his own accounting firm, “Here’s what the school fire taught me: Go for it. Ask the prettiest girl to dance. Drink the last drink. You might be dead before you know it. What are you worried about?”
Chicago Sun Times 11/30/08