“The most tangible of all visible mysteries – fire.” — Leigh Hunt
When I was a fourth grader at St. Bede’s School on the Southwest Side of Chicago, a fire raged at Our Lady of Angels School. Ninety-two students and three nuns were killed. Even though I lived miles away from this West Side parish, this tragedy is seared into my mind.
Our black and white television broadcasted the grim news that evening while my parents sat riveted to the screen. As a nine-year-old, I was just beginning to read the newspaper. We got two — the Chicago Trib in the morning, the Chicago Daily News in the afternoon. For the next few days, I lay on our living room floor, reading article after article, poring over the horrific photos of the blazing building, the firefighters carrying dead children in their arms, the helpless and horrified parents standing outside the inferno. The front page displayed photos of every victim — row after row of Catholic school kids just like me. I read interviews of firemen and policemen and of parents whose children perished. I learned a new word as I read — morgue– the place where parents went to identify their dead children.
Yes, OLA was different from my school. St. Bede’s was a one-story, sprawling structure, and we could have easily climbed out any window. OLA was a three story death trap where kids’ only escape was to jump from windows to the pavement below. Still, I was terrified, my imagination swirling with images of fire, panic, and death. And, I knew that my Worcester cousins went to a school called Our Lady of Angels, an old building not too different from the Chicago one. The coincidence choked me.
Soon after the fire, our family put up our Christmas tree, an annual gift from the North Woods of Wisconsin, shipped by my Uncle Art’s parents. Each year, our tree was crispy and brittle, but it was free, so we strung our colored lights, hung ornaments, and draped the tinsel my mother preserved year after year. In 1958, the tree was a specter of death. Would those red, green, and blue lights set those dried-out branches alight? Would a fire climb the boughs, leap onto our draperies, lick at my dad’s recliner, before creeping down the hall and up the stairs into my bedroom? Would my parents, my brothers and sisters die in a Christmas inferno? Nightly, I tossed and turned while my sister snoozed next to me. One night, I crept downstairs to check on the tree, and my dad, watching television, held me in his lap and reassured me. Sobbing, I begged him to unplug the lights. He did, but they were plugged in again the next night. We couldn’t have an unlit tree, after all. I was relieved when the tree came down around the Epiphany — January 6 — but still fretted about our furnace, my dad’s cigarettes, a burner left on.
After the fire, schools across the country changed. Fire codes were toughened. Fire drills were required. Decades later, when I was teaching, I supervised countless drills. I never, ever tolerated any kid to horse around during a drill. “Geez, what’s her problem?” was unspoken but clear on the faces of my students, but that day in 1958 weighed on me every time that alarm would sound and I’d lead a class down a flight of stairs and into the parking lot.
The internet is full of Our Lady of Angels stories, photos, and filmed footage. I’m drawn to it, but fifty-seven years later, I can only consume small bits. The grainy black and white images from those old newspapers still grip me in terror. Yet, my trauma is a tiny matchstick compared to the hellish memories and pain of the survivors.
Today, our evening news horrors are mass shootings, unthinkable in 1958 America. What nightmares are now seeping into our children’s consciousness? Tighter laws now make our schools safe from fire. Where are the laws to stop massacres by killers with guns?