School fire at Our Lady of the Angels

Learned Lessons, Forgotten

“There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.” -Percy Bugbee, president of the National Fire Protection Association 

Remembering the Our Lady of the Angels Fire

60 years is an eternity in the world of technology and modern thoughts and practices. It comes as no surprise that a school fire in December of 1958 resulted in the death of 92 students and 3 teachers. How could they have learned, that long ago, all the lessons that we use to design safe buildings today?

As it turns out, they already knew.

The knew that stored combustibles were a fire hazard and shouldn’t be stored in great quantities.

… that stairwells needed to be enclosed and separated from the building with fire doors.

… that the building should be constructed out of materials that were fire-resistant.

… that transom windows (typically windows above doors which allowed light and air through) created dangerous routes for the spread of fire.

… that fire sprinkler systems effectively contained and even outright extinguished fires.

… that concealed spaces, such as those between ceiling panels and the roof, created hidden routes in which the fire could travel.

… that heat and smoke detectors, which would activate fire alarms and were directly connected to the fire department, detected fires before anyone had noticed them.

… that fire alarms, when activated on time, gave building inhabitants the time needed to get to safety.

… that early reporting of a fire, such as through a fire alarm, gave fire fighters the time they needed to arrive on the scene before the fire was out of control.

They didn’t heed the lessons from other deadly fires before them.

At Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, the building was under a 1905 ordinance that was written well before a number of fire protection engineering advancements. The updated 1949 Chicago Municipal Code took those lessons into account, but only applied to new construction. This new code called for construction using non-combustible materials and buildings to be equipped with sprinkler systems, enclosed stairwells, and fire doors, among other advancements.

Instead, the building and stairwells were wood and plaster, the classroom ceilings were made of flammable cellulose fiber tiles, and every classroom had a glass transom window above the door. The classrooms themselves, like many at the time, were overcrowded with about 60 students in each.

What fire protection systems the school had in place were negligently inadequate, if not ridiculous in hind sight. There was no sprinkler system nor smoke detectors. There were fire extinguishers, but oddly enough they were mounted on the walls six feet above the floor! In a year where the average male height was 5’ 6”! The fire alarm? A plain, un-labeled electrical switch, also six feet off the floor. Fire hose racks and accompanying valves? Six feet off the floor. The only conclusion I’ve been able to come to is that it was a primary concern that the elementary-age school children be prevented from messing with this equipment, that somehow a false alarm was worse than preventing the loss of life.

Firefighter Richard Scheidt carrying John Michael Jajkowski, Jr. from the school
Firefighter Richard Scheidt carrying John Michael Jajkowski, Jr. from the school

… that heat and smoke detectors gave early fire warnings

The fire started in a cardboard trash container at the bottom of a stairwell in the basement. It smoldered there for 30 minutes, unnoticed.

… that fire-resistant building materials should be use

Flames quickly spread to the wooden staircase, fueling itself off the varnished woodwork.

… that stairwells needed to be enclosed and separated

Heat, smoke, and gases blasted up the stairwell as quickly as if in a chimney. They were stopped from entering the first-floor hall by fire doors, but the second floor had none.

… that concealed spaces create hidden routes for the fire

Students and teachers were almost immediately trapped by toxic smoke and super-heated gases in the hallway, as well as by flames above the classroom ceilings.

… that fire alarms give building inhabitants time to get to safety

One of the first teachers to know about the fire ran to the principal’s office, as the principal was the only one authorized to sound the fire alarm. Finding the principal absent, the teacher returned to her classroom to evacuate her students at which point she finally returned to the school and flipped one of only two fire alarm switches that served the entire school.

… that fire alarms should be directly connected to the fire department

The fire department didn’t get the alarm until 10 minutes after the fire was first discovered, 40 minutes after it had started. They were behind in the fight before they even arrived on the scene. Fire fighters had to break through a locked, seven-foot iron fence that closed off the school’s courtyard in order to erect ladders against the building and even then, with the second-floor sills 25 feet off the ground, most of the ladders were too short. They became desperate and started just pulling students through the windows and dropping them to the ground, figuring the risk of injury was better than the certain death of the smoke and flames. Fire fighters reported seeing the white shirts of the children turning brown from the heat.

In the end, 92 students and 3 teachers died.

26 students and their teacher died from smoke inhalation alone, untouched by fire, in a single classroom.

A coroner’s jury inquest as well as an NFPA report both cited inadequate fire detection and alarms, poor housekeeping and poor fire evacuation practice and called the school a “fire trap.” Following the jury’s and the NFPA’s assessment, the mayor and city council retroactively amended building code to require automatic sprinklers in all schools with wooden floors and 2 or more stories tall as well as other changes.

The fire motivated the Los Angeles Fire Department to conduct a series of tests investigating school fires in buildings with open stairwells. It was found only complete sprinkler systems were successful in limiting the spread of the products of combustion and in extinguishing or at least containing the fire. This includes tests using partial sprinkler systems, fire curtains, and roof vents.

The tests also emphasized that smoke was the most serious threat inside a building during a fire.

After the Our Lady of the Angels fire, nearly 70% of all communities across the United States initiated fire safety improvements. These included mandatory fire exit drills, more inspections, fire-resistant construction, and the installation of fire alarms.

More importantly, there was a change in attitude. Prior to this fire, there had long been a debate between municipal officials and public safety advocates on whether or not government could demand existing buildings to conform to newer regulations. It turned out that school systems, as part of locally-controlled school districts and supported by local taxpayers or, in the case of private and parochial schools, financed through private funds, were among the last classes of public buildings to accept this new mindset.

It’d be a shameful testament to the memory of these children to fail to learn from past mistakes.

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