Death in the Afternoon


By Sam Garfield 

Dec. 2, 1958

(Our Lady of Angels) –Twenty minutes. That’s all, just twenty minutes, and they’d be on their way home. Or hurrying to a friend’s house to listen to records and have a hot chocolate. Maybe stop off at the corner store to buy a comic book or pack of baseball cards.

But not on this afternoon. First, they heard occasional crackling sounds, like logs burning in a fireplace. The younger kids paid no attention. Then, the classrooms started to get hot. That old furnace again, the older kids thought. Soon everyone began to cough; their eyes stung. The smoke came in quietly at first; between the cracks in the blackboard; under the door. More smoke, thick and black, rolled in through open transoms. It was 2:40 in the afternoon, and the school, its students, its neighborhood, would never be the same.

The Three O’clock dismissal bell never rang yesterday at Our Lady of Angels. As Sisters of Charity nuns and lay teachers taught history, spelling and arithmetic to some 1,200 students, as parents in this close-knit, working class community waited for their children to return home, an angry, deadly monster came alive in a corner of the school, not far from the basement chapel. It moved quietly up the stairwell in the north wing, all the way to the second floor, where it sprang through an open door and flashed across heavily painted walls, varnished floors and a dusty, poorly ventilated crawl space above classroom ceilings. As an unaware neighborhood went about its afternoon in store shops and in tidy bungalows and apartments, its children fought for their lives in choking smoke and searing flames. Within minutes, the monster took the lives of 87 of our children and three nuns. Some died when they jumped from second-story windows; smoke inhalation killed many; others burned at their desks. Firemen found piles of small bodies fused together by the intense heat. A deathblow to families; a tragedy to a neighborhood; a crisis for a city.

Our mayor, his face ashen white, watched the horror unfold, along with thousands of other fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors. “This place, this neighborhood, these people. None of this –none of us– will ever be the same again,” one man said.

This morning, as we begin to mourn, we also need to remember those brave men and women who mitigated the tragedy with their acts of bravery. Several nuns led children to safety and returned to the burning school several times to save more lives. One nun calmly gathered forty sixth and seventh graders in blinding smoke on the second floor and instructed them to crawl along the hallway floor. When some began to panic, she rolled them down the stairs to get them out quickly. Many neighborhood residents ran into the school before the fire department arrived and led children to safety. And, of course, the Blue Shirts of the Chicago Fire Department, who carried heavy ladders across streets and lawns to save panic-stricken kids. They will carry this day with them forever.

As you read this, many children remain in hospitals fighting for survival. They, too, need to be remembered. Their lives will never be the same.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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