Lessons for Newtown from Our Lady of the Angels

by William van Ornum

What will happen to the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School for the rest of their lives? Despite tremendous media attention, this question has remained largely unasked. Perhaps because there do not seem to be any similar events — previous school shootings occurred with older children. Psychologists who study post-traumatic stress disorder will no doubt be offering their thoughts, but it is uncharted territory for them, and all of us, too.

A tragedy just as painful, as indescribable, and as incomprehensible occurred in Chicago on December 1, 1958. On this cold Friday afternoon, the students at Our Lady of Angels School on the West Side of Chicago had just finished lunch. Somehow a fire started beneath a stairway, and the conflagration soon consumed the wooden interior of the building. Everything happened quickly: Most of Chicago’s firemen responded to the 5-11 alarm; when the first responders arrived, huge amounts of smoke were coming out of the roof, windows, and any crevice.

The fireman placed their ladders against the turn-of-the-century building. Some rushed into the hallways. By now, parents had arrived and a few were trying to coax the students to jump from the second-story windows. Some did, and broke bones. The firemen rescued over 160 children, a record probably until September 11, 2001.

Many children could not be saved.

Ninety-two children and three teachers died in the Our Lady of Angels fire. Many died of smoke inhalation — the solid exterior of the building kept the smoke inside or funneled it into rooms where the children were trapped. Some children, guided by teachers, escaped through the hallways. But others found it impossible to outrun the deadly smoke. As one fireman was ready to rescue a group of children, they died suddenly, incinerated by the incredibly high temperatures.

Afterward, there was chaos. As in Newtown, frantic parents came to the school. Some found their children safe, others were re-united at hospitals, and too many others had to identify their childs’ bodies at a makeshift morgue. In addition to firemen’s acts of heroism, doctors and nurses formed teams, donated their time, triaging the children with severe burns from those whose injuries were not as serious. One boy had burns over 70 percent of his body. He died eight months later.

#more#The mayor and the cardinal came to the scene to offer material and spiritual resources. Soon enough, the funerals began. One large funeral had to be held in an armory so the many little white caskets could each be seen. Over 10,000 people attended one ceremony. As at Newton, the Pope sent his prayers and a nation sent condolences.

In some ways unlike Newtown, where many emotions attached to possible “solutions” filled the media, and rancorous discussions reared their ugly head, a pall of grieving and sadness enveloped Chicago, bringing the city together. Soon after the fire, a commission came out with specific recommendations to make schools as fireproof as possible. Some changes in building codes required doors that would keep smoke from spreading, solid doors that would no longer have glass above them that could break, sending in suffocating smoke. Metals replaced wood. Windows were made for emergency egress. These efforts were successful: School fires involving deaths of many students stopped happening.

The discussions after Newtown are going to be much more difficult. The minds of shooters and their behaviors and many factors from the wider culture will be more difficult to understand than engineering buildings that will not burn as readily. In designing new fire codes, there could be agreement on what to do. Everyone could agree that wooden floors or hallways no longer belonged in schools. We are not in agreement about what to do after Newton, and this event may even further divide the country. When children hear adults argue about what to do, will this increase their insecurities?

What else can be said about the children? Our Lady of the Angels happened in an era before extensive therapy. Each family had to struggle to find ways to heal their own offspring. Masses and prayers brought solace but some parents undoubtedly lost their faith. Within several years there was a new school on the site, declared to be as fireproof as possible. Unlike the boasts about the Titanic, this fact was true, and there is no doubt that such improvements meant many future lives were saved.

Periodic stories in the Chicago papers kept the story alive. A once close-knit neighborhood around the school disintegrated due to to other factors; many neighbors became separated as families scattered into the suburbs. Eventually the school itself closed. When survivors went back to the old neighborhood, they went in small groups because the neighborhood had grown dangerous.

About 40 years after the Our Lady of Angels fire, a small group of survivors came together to create a durable memory and reminder of what had occurred. They created a website with scores of photos of the fire and funerals. There was also photos from “better days” to remind everyone that their entire identity need not be consumed by tragedy. A discussion board now ten years old expresses what happened to many specific individuals. This showed the many different ways of grieving and rebuilding lives, affirmations that this was possible. Perhaps these stories may offer some kind of roadmap to those affected by Newtown.

During the three day period surrounding the 50th anniversary of the fire, the website memorial for the Our Lady of Angels fire received over 2.8 million hits. Grieving and rebuilding lives 54 years after the OLA Fire is still occurring. These stories indicate sufferings that will last many decades, but which may offer a modicum of inspiration and hope, because these are chronicles of people who suffered greatly but kept on living. 

— William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research at American Mental Health Foundation.

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