IRISH-IN-CHICAGO-L ArchivesArchiver > IRISH-IN-CHICAGO > 2008-11 > 1227874994
Subject: [IRISH-IN-CHICAGO] Chgo Sun-Times: Our Lady of Angels Fire (article1 of 3)
Date: Fri, 28 Nov 2008 06:23:14 -0600
It was a day when the lives of 92 schoolchildren were stolen in a place
where their parents thought they would be safe: their school.
The inferno that consumed Chicago's Our Lady of the Angels on Dec. 1, 1958,
opened a pit of sorrow that still seems bottomless. The survivors have
replayed those agonizing minutes in their minds countless times -- and all
the things that went wrong, increasing the body count. In the strong, silent
'50s, survivors, victims' families and rescuers were urged not to dwell on
God took the good ones, they were told. Get on with your lives. But OLA
alums have never forgotten the three nuns who died and classmates who never
had a chance to get old.
People are coming to Chicago from across the country for a 50th anniversary
mass at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt, where the
names of the 92 children and three nuns will be read.
"I'm going to be at the mass to honor the kids that are not here, and the
poor parents that suffered so greatly that day,'' said survivor Matt
In addition to the mass Sunday, all the schools in the Archdiocese of
Chicago are invited to join in a prayer for the victims on Monday at 2:30
p.m., the approximate time of the fire. At least two other Chicago services
will mark the fire, and other memorial masses are being arranged across the
country, according to the Web site olafire.com. "They were sitting in
Catholic schools in Baltimore or Philadelphia, and they could relate because
they had nuns and they had schools built at the turn of the century that
were 50, 60 years old," Plovanich said.
Our Lady of the Angels alums say something good came out of something
horrific: The fire made schools safer. Sweeping changes in school design,
materials and construction, as well as requirements for fire doors,
sprinklers and fire drills, were put into place nationwide after the blaze.
They take some comfort in that.
"One of the positive things that came about was the review of building
codes; more fireproofing, how [fire] drills were handled" and sprinkler
requirements, said Annette Szafran, who was an eighth-grader when the fire
struck. Szafran was pulled to safety from a window by the Rev. Joseph
Ognibene and parent Sam Tortorice. Szafran found her third-grade sister
outside and they hugged, surrounded by mothers and fathers on the sidewalks
screaming the names of their children inside. Some parents tried to storm
the building, only to be driven back by flames, or tackled by police.
The fire destroyed the neighborhood around the school at Avers and Iowa.
Families moved away. Some parents divorced. Children who survived didn't
want to go outside because mothers of children lost in the fire would stop
and beseech them to recall their final minutes.
"Everyone knew someone who died," Szafran said. "You couldn't go to your
neighbor and say, 'I'm sorry you lost your son or daughter,' because you
might have lost your son or daughter. People didn't know how to comfort each
"Our neighbor's very best friend was at the fire that day, and he said he
was pulling kids out of his classroom. He saw his son at the window and said
'Jump! Jump! I'm here' -- and his son didn't jump. He died. How do you
counsel that man, who saved the other children?" "The amount of sadness in
the neighborhood was just horrible, like a darkness had come,'' Plovanich
The group Friends of OLA has created the James Raymond Scholarship for
children of firefighters. Commemorative license plates have helped fund the
scholarship, named for a janitor who rescued many students. Alums say
Raymond's name was besmirched when he was questioned about whether poor
housekeeping contributed to the blaze. Raymond's son, John, credits survivor
Charlene Campanale Jancik, who passed away in 2003, as the driving force
behind the scholarship.
About five years ago, alums began reconnecting because of ola fire.com; a
documentary, "Angels Too Soon," and a book, To Sleep with the Angels, by
David Cowan and John Kuenster. The book charged that a boy at the school
confessed to setting the fire, but was never prosecuted. He has since died,
Kuenster said. (Many survivors were shocked when Cowan was charged with
setting a 2005 fire at a storage building of St. Benedict Parish on the
North Side. At the time, his wife attributed the incident to stress and
Kuenster, a former Chicago Daily News writer, has written another book about
the fire, Remembrances of the Angels, with new interviews with survivors,
parents and rescuers. "We should never forget something like this, but the
kids who died and the people who are hurt and the children who are missed,
there's a great legacy from this, and that is that schools are a lot safer
today," Kuenster said.
After many survivors complained about a lack of psychological help, in 2003,
the Archdiocese of Chicago offered 15 counseling sessions to survivors --
more, if they needed them, spokeswoman Susan Burritt said. About 17
survivors and relatives sought help, she said. To learn more, call the
archdiocese at (312) 751-5254 and ask for the assistance ministry, Burritt
The Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary have scheduled a memorial at 1 p.m.
Saturday at the graves of the three dead sisters at Mount Carmel Cemetery in
Hillside; at 1:30 p.m. at the mausoleum chapel of Queen of Heaven Cemetery
in Hillside, followed by a memorial at the Our Lady of the Angels monument
in Section 17 at Queen of Heaven, where many of the children who died are
Also Sunday, alums of an award-winning Chicago drum and bugle corps -- which
lost three students to the blaze -- will commemorate their passing. The
Royal Airs will perform at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the Our Lady of the Angels
monument at Queen of Heaven.
Survivor Ellenann Wassinger said she plans to attend the Sunday mass. "I
just want to pay my respects. I lost a lot of classmates in my room -- I
think almost half," she said. "I think it will help me." Wassinger said she
struggled for years with depression and dreams of dead classmates. The fire
stole "a lot of trust. . . . I don't have any friends because I'm always
afraid I'm going to lose them."
John Raymond, another survivor, also will be at the mass. His memories are
stirred when he hears schoolchildren at recess. "If I hear a siren, and the
kids screaming at the same time, it takes me back to the fire. I [go to the
window or outside to] check on them. On Sunday, I feel like I have to be
there, just to honor my classmates that passed, and the ones that have
gotten this far, as I have,'' Raymond said. "Even though they're dead, I've
thought about them all my life. It's where I should be."