News outlets report that the former Our Lady of the Angels school building, located on the site of a historic Chicago fire that killed 95 people, has been outfitted with a new automatic sprinkler system.
The December 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels was one of the deadliest school fires in history – killing 92 school children and 3 nuns who were unable to exit their classrooms via the second floor hallway and stairwell given the fire’s intense smoke, heat, and toxic gases.
The devastating incident began in a basement garbage bin located near a stairwell in the school’s older wing and smoldered without notice for at least 20 minutes. Smoke and fire then spread up the stairwell to the first floor where it was thwarted by a closed heavy wooden door. Thick gray smoke and fumes, however, persisted up the stairwell to the second floor where it was able to spread to the hallways and classrooms because that level lacked a fire door.
Conditions intensified after making contact with combustibles such as wood construction materials, heavily waxed floors, and children’s coats hanging on hooks in the hallway. The intense heat was unable to break through the roof because it had been re-tarred several times. Extra oxygen from a door that was propped open and the shattering of a glass transom window on the first floor fueled the fire. All these factors, combined with slow emergency response due to notification and communication failures, created an epic disaster that killed nearly a third of the 334 occupants on the second floor. The victims were asphyxiated, burned and forced to jump out of classroom windows.
The year after the tragedy, NFPA issued a report on the blaze and called out community and Catholic leaders in Chicago for "housing their children in fire traps". The school had recently passed a safety inspection but was exempt from retrofitting safety devices because the structure was built before 1949. Former NFPA President Percy Bugbee reportedly said at the time, "There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded."
In 1960, the Our Lady of the Angels School was rebuilt. In 1999, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the school and the building was used as a charter school until 2016, and most recently by the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels as a food pantry, daycare, and afterschool resource for families on Chicago’s West Side.
Thanks to the generosity of local fire sprinkler fitters, the U.S. Alliance Fire Protection, plumbers and pipe fitter union members, the occupants of the newly renovated Our Lady of the Angels Outreach Center can take comfort in their building being protected by current life safety codes and the lifesaving benefits that come with modern day fire protection and suppression systems.