Chicago, IL Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, Dec 1958 - Death Toll Reaches 90

Death Toll Reaches 90 In Parochial School Fire

Police Probe Possible Arson Cause As Chicagoans Mourn Tragedy

CHICAGO (UPI) - Police questioned pupils in a grief stricken West Side neighborhood Tuesday in an effort to learn if one of them accidentally caused a fire which killed 87 students and three nuns in a Roman Catholic school.
A squad of 35 officers was assigned to question boys whose task it was to carry wastepaper from classrooms to trash bins near a basement stairwell where the fire apparently started.
Authorities questioned two boys during the night and called two more youths to the Austin police station late Tuesday morning. Police theorized a pupil might have tossed a lighted cigarette into the trash, setting off Chicago's worst fire in 55 years.
The fire flashed through Our Lady of Angels parochial school Monday only about 20 minutes before classes were to be dismissed.
The flames and blinding clouds of black smoke which billowed through the building killed 53 girls, 34 boys and 3 nuns. The children were from 9 to 15 years old.
Nearly 100 children were injured and 82 of them remained hospitalized Tuesday. Nine of the injured were in critical condition and four of these were not expected to live.
At the Morgue, grieving parents identified 76 of the little victims. Eight other were identified tentatively.
Some of the dead were charred beyond recognition and the process of trying to identify them through the remains and personal effects moved slowly.
At mid-morning, two bodies were identified by their teeth. The victim's fathers, who had waiting tensely through the night, gave in to uncontrolled grief. Policemen who had seen the scene repeated hour after hour broke down and cried. One of the fathers, VICTOR SILVIO, collapsed and shouted in hysteria.
Coroner WALTER MCCARRON deferred a "blue ribbon jury" investigation until he could bring together "the top men, the best I can find' to serve on the panel.
The coroner also postponed an inquest until sometime next week. Funeral arrangements for the victims were pending.
The injured children were taken to five hospitals where doctors sought to patch their broken and bruised bodies. An urgent appeal was issued for blood donors to replenish depleted supplies. The response was so great the hospitals had to then appeal to people to stay away.
At the school itself, about 40 officers probed the ruins of the building in search of clues. Three squads of detectives questioned the parents of a handful of children still missing. The missing youngsters were believed to have wandered off in shock after the fire, and probably were being sheltered by residents of the neighborhood.
Police questioned an unidentified man who had been seen to enter and leave the school several times prior to the fire, but released him when a lie detector test cleared him of guilty knowledge of the blaze.

The Edwardsville Intelligencer Illinois 1958-12-02

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Doorways Blamed For High Death Toll

Disagreement On Existence Of Wood Doors

CHICAGO (UPI) - Fire experts speculated Wednesday that an open doorway at the head of a stairs turned the second floor of Our Lady of the Angels school into a furnace of death for 87 children and three Roman Catholic nuns.
But they disagreed as to whether doors actually hung in the doorway Monday when flames, possibly touched off by a youngster's carelessly tossed cigarette, shot up the stairwell from the school basement and pushed suffocating hot gases through six classrooms.
Two investigators of the National Fire Protection Assn. Said they found that there were two heavy wooden doors at the head of the stairs and that they had been wedged or hooked open.
But Deputy Fire Commissioner ALBERT H. PETERSEN said city fire investigators found no indication that there was a door at the landing.
He said, "If there was a wooden door we would have found evidences of it -“ such as hinges - and had there been a steel door, I assume it would have remained."
PETERSEN agreed with the association investigators that if the doorway had been closed off, the fire toll might have been considerably less.
PERCY BUGBEE, general manager of the association, said "a simple blunder of open doors appears to be the major cause of the heavy loss of life."
"The simple precaution of keeping these second floor landing doors closed would have kept the intense fire and hot gases out ... for many precious minutes," BUGBEE said in Boston. "In all likelihood every classroom could have been emptied in time."
BUGEE, informed that Chicago fire officials doubted the existence of the wooden doors, said the association would "stick by our story." He said his investigators spent four hours exploring the school ruins Tuesday and "They know what they are talking about.'
Msgr. WILLIAM McMANUS, superintendent of schools for the Chicago archdiocese, declined comment on the fire experts report because he had not seen its full text and was not acquainted personally with construction details at Our Lady of the Angels school.

The Edwardsville Intelligencer Illinois 1958-12-03