Pain, lessons of Our Lady of the Angels fire recalled

Historian, survivors discuss blaze that killed 92 students, 3 nuns

Few aspects of modern-day know-how have their roots in as much death, injury and psychological scarring as today's fire and building codes do in the Dec. 1, 1958, fire at Chicago's Our Lady of the Angels School.

A group of Hoffman Estates residents Wednesday heard a vivid account from a historian and several survivors of the blaze that claimed the lives of 92 children and three nuns.

Jim Gibbons, who led the lunchtime presentation for the village's Commission for Senior Citizens, pointed out that it remains the third-largest fire in Chicago history and the third-largest school fire in U.S. history.

"It was our neighborhood 9/11," said survivor Matt Plovanich of Chicago, who was in the fifth grade when he escaped his smoke-filled classroom seconds before it exploded into flame.

The experience would cause him to suffer from violent night terrors into his mid-30s.

Among the most dangerous episodes were nearly falling out a third-floor window he'd broken out in panic and, on a different occasion, coming to his senses in his underwear on Lincoln Avenue.

He also believes it was his survivor's guilt that led him to a perilous career as an undercover police officer in which he was injured many times in run-ins with criminals.

What finally helped him release his bottled-up emotions was being interviewed by writer David Cowan for the book, "To Sleep with the Angels - The Story of a Fire."

"Once I started talking, I couldn't stop," he said.

Though the fire is believed to have started in the school's basement, Hoffman Estates resident Alex Grattoni said he had a much easier time getting out of his third-grade classroom down there than what Plovanich experienced.

Nonetheless, he can still vividly remember looking back to see the black smoke billowing out of the building, and then his father rushing toward him.

"He held me, and I could see the tears streaming out of his eyes," Grattoni said.

He recalls the competing feelings of gratitude that so many made it out and the remorse that so many didn't.

Gibbons said the characteristics of the school building that looked most reassuring to 1958 eyes in terms of their solidity and security are shocking to 21st-century sensibilities due to the life-threatening vulnerabilities the fire exposed.

These included wood floors, varnished wooden doors, exposed radiators, a heavily tarred roof, a raised basement that added height to the two floors above, concrete rather than grass on the ground below the windows, a single fire escape for the entire building, and a locked 6-foot-tall iron fence around the whole school.

And that's in addition to the absence of sprinklers, smoke detectors, 9-1-1 and the direct connect to fire departments that schools and other public buildings take for granted today, Gibbons said.

Remembering the Our Lady of the Angels fire

Our Lady tragedy ushered in safety improvements

  Matt Plovanich of Chicago was only 10 when he experienced the Our Lady of the Angels School fire that would change his thinking and decisions throughout life. Mark Welsh/
A combined funeral Mass was held for children who died in the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago in 1958. Courtesy of Jim Gibbons
A photo inside a classroom after the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago in December 1958. Courtesy of Jim Gibbons

Our Lady of the Angels fire facts

Date: Monday, Dec. 1, 1958

Location: 909 N. Avers Ave. in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood

Time fire started: Between 2 and 2:20 p.m.

Source: Wastebasket in school's north wing stairwell

Suspected cause: Arson

Number of children who died: 92

Number of nuns who died: 3

Firefighters responding: 200

Age of school at time: 48 years old

Exterior: Brick

Interior: Heavily varnished wood

Safety features: One fire escape, no sprinklers, no fire alarms, no smoke detectors or fire-safe doors. There were four fire extinguishers in the north wing of the school, where the fire occurred, but they were mounted high off the floor and unreachable by most students

Sources: Our Lady of Angels fire memorial; 'To Sleep with the Angels,' by David Cowan and John Kuenster, 1996.

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