I had absolutely nothing to do with the Our Lady of Angels school fire that happened sixty-one years ago today in Chicago, but that fire has deeply affected my life every day for over twenty years.
On December 1, 1958, 92 children and three nuns perished in a blaze that claimed not only innocent life. Also destroyed were the psychological and physical well-being of an entire neighborhood, widespread trust in the city and its resources, and the faith of many people in the local clergy, the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the Church itself. To say that the fire touched many more than those 95 who died is to understate the profound impact of the event. Yet, at this writing, only a small plaque exists at the site in commemoration of all that the fire destroyed. Some feel that the event is still too close for such a gesture. Others point to a striking memorial at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in suburban Hillside, marking the graves of 25 of the fire victims. A few still say, as they did at the new building’s completion, that the new parish school is their memorial. That school is no longer even the “new” Our Lady of the Angels school. It is a charter school, struggling to make its mark in a sea of similar institutions, breathing life into the abandoned shells of Chicago’s past.
When David Cowan and John Kuenster combined their extensive research efforts to pen their 1996 volume, To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire, they aimed to “set straight the record” on one of the most devastating fires in American history and, arguably, the most tragic event in Chicago’s modern memory. To accomplish their grim task, they conducted countless interviews with survivors, friends and family of those who perished, firefighters and police, members of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the reporters who documented the impact and aftermath of the event. In 1996 the authors stated their intentions in writing the book: “to provide a sense of closure to an historical void that . . . remained open for nearly four decades.”
Today, six decades after the fire, that void is still wide open.
The book opened the wounds of the survivors and let them speak. Before the book’s publication, there was an unspoken gag order against speaking ill about the fire, especially against the Church, primarily against the Archdiocese of Chicago. The book changed all that, and it opened up a flood of communication, most of it angry, from those who the death of the children left behind.
December 1st. December 1st. December 1st.
This is what I wrote after interviewing David Cowan in the winter of 1997:
Like so many schools of its time, the parish school of Our Lady of the Angels was ill-prepared to challenge its fate. In the late 1950s, the building remained without sprinkler systems and smoke detectors, the second-floor staircases were without fire doors. The fire alarm rang only inside the school, with neither an outside alarm nor a fire station signal to assist it. In all, the school possessed just a single fire escape. Even the window ledges, 37 inches off the floor, were too high for most of the primary and middle-grade children to reach. Fourteen hundred students packed the main building alone, typical of the overcrowding common to elementary schools of the day. Notwithstanding what were by current standards grossly inadequate safety conditions at the school, the building had passed its last inspection just two months before the fire erupted. Governed as it was by a 1905 ordinance that contained neither provisions requiring construction with noncombustibles nor installation of fire safety devices such as sprinklers and fire escapes, Our Lady of the Angels was unbelievably, legally safe.
In the aftermath, investigators isolated the spot where the blaze had begun sometime after two o’clock on that overcast December afternoon in a refuse drum at the bottom of the desolate northeast basement stairwell. After annihilating the container’s debris, the fire had continued to smolder until the heat blew out a stairwell window and fed the area with a wave of oxygen. With nothing in its path but wooden and asphalt-tiled stairs, varnished woodwork, and two layers of rubberized-plastic paint on the walls, the fire shot up the stairwell and forged a swift path to a second floor corridor flanked by classroom doors. Every surface the fire touched dissolved into black smoke and burst the glass in transoms over classroom doors. By 2:45 p.m., as Engine 85 pulled up to the building, the upper floor of the north wing was mostly ablaze.
Nearly one-third of the roof was burned off before firefighters could halt the fire’s advance. They were working against a nearly half-hour time loss. The fire had burned many minutes before an alarm was sent, help was sent to the wrong address, and a locked courtyard gate had to be broken through. Still, the firefighters’ initial efforts resulted in the rescue of 160 children, some of whose falls they broke with their own bodies as children jumped from classroom windows.
One of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, “Anna Imroth,” tells of a young girl’s death in a factory fire, after failing to survive a jump to safety. In that poem, commentators on Anna’s misfortune charged her death to “the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes.” In response to the fire at Our Lady of the Angels, however, the public was far from willing to so neatly split the blame.
For the fire at Our Lady of the Angels left far more than a building in ruins. Among the debris, Chicagoans and the world recognized the ashes of their trust, in the city, in the Church, in their neighbors. Everywhere the wronged sought a scapegoat for the fire. Families and friends cursed the city; the media targeted the Archdiocese; police and fire officials hunted for an arsonist. In fact, God was barely mentioned, except to be invoked in the millions of prayers and curses following the disaster. Still, though many were blamed, only one villain was truly rehabilitated-the existing fire safety ordinances.
On January 21, 1959, the Chicago City Council adopted amendments to the city building code requiring automatic sprinkler systems in all frame schools over two stories tall with wooden floors and joists. By December 1964, every school in Chicago was brought up to speed with respect to the new fire safety codes, and within a year of the Our Lady of the Angels fire, more than 16,000 school buildings across the country had made major fire safety improvements.
During his ten years of research for To Sleep with the Angels, David Cowan made countless visits to the new school and to the fire memorial at Queen of Heaven Cemetery. He describes the fire site in no uncertain terms. Of the new school, he firmly states, “That’s sacred ground.” This feeling was heightened after a 1995 commemorative mass, when Cowan and a friend visited the second-floor classrooms where the fire had played out. Describing the discomfort of “being in the same air space” as those who had witnessed the fire firsthand, Cowan related to me when I first interviewed him for my first book, a number of unusual accounts he received in the course of his conversations with those close to the fire.
A young woman who attended Our Lady of the Angels in the early 1980s told of several occasions when she heard the sound of people screaming and felt a sort of presence while she was alone in the school hallway. Later, she drew sketches of faces she had seen in a dream: faces which she linked to the inexplicable sounds. Elsewhere, family members of the victims told of premonitions of death during the days before the tragedy. One mother had entered her son’s room on the night before the fire to encounter a vision of him lying in a coffin. Others related experiences which occurred after the fire. One woman, resting at home after the ordeal of identifying her son at the morgue, woke to see him sitting on the couch, holding her hand and consoling her. In another case, a sister appeared to her grief-stricken brother, assuring him, “Don’t worry. I’m going to watch over you.” In one particularly compelling case, a survivor of the fire related how, after escaping the building, he and a friend went looking for his sister amid the frantic crowd gathered outside the school. Relieved at seeing her walking towards home down a nearby alley, he returned to the drama of the fire scene. However, when he returned home later that afternoon, he learned that his sister had died in the fire.
Although Cowan clearly trusts in the earnest nature of these accounts, there are other tales of the fire which invite his criticism; namely, reports that the fire memorial at Queen of Heaven Cemetery has at times exhibited the smell of smoke, a phenomenon to which he, during his countless visits to the site, was never privy. Whatever truth there may have been in any of these stories, it is certain that a great number of ghosts were laid to rest with the publication of To Sleep With the Angels.
But other fires started in the piles of fallout, sparked by anger, hatred, resentment and, most of all, grief. Countless numbers left the Church. Families broke apart. The neighborhood, a close knit community of mostly Italian Americans, saw families leave. They said later it was the “white flight” after the West Side riots of the ’60s.
David Cowan is my husband. I met him when I was researching my first book, and I first met him in his firehouse in Bellwood, where he was, at the time of our interview, a firefighter. He had told my research assistant that he “could write a book about the experiences” of survivors of the fire. I called my research assistant an “ambulance chaser” for contacting Dave. I was really angry that he had reached out to this writer about this event. Almost 40 years after it happened, it was still too raw for ghost stories. I think it may still be. Not just for the survivors, but for so many others who have gone close enough to touch them, and to touch their grief.
Something in the research for that book, and the interviews with hundreds of family members, survivors, witnesses, officials and others close to the event, triggered something in my husband, a decorated firefighter and Air Force veteran–and sufferer of Bipolar disorder. He began to drink heavily during the writing of the book, entered recovery, and began to drink again after I gave birth to our first daughter a year after our marriage. While on administrative leave for “calling in sick with a hangover” (the truth was that he had formed a union at work and was targeted by superiors), Dave set a fire at our church, where he was working with the maintenance staff during his layoff, after the then-pastor and he argued. Dave still says that argument reminded him of how much he hated the Church and what it did to the kids at “OLA”-shorthand for what those close to the Our Lady of the Angels fire call that disaster.
Dave was convicted of a felony and went to the penitentiary. He had given all of our savings to his defense attorney. I testified against him with the Grand Jury, because I had seen Dave run away from the scene. And then, in court, because my brother, who was a police sergeant at the time, told me to, even though I apparently didn’t have to. Still I thought in my mind that maybe he would get better if he went to prison. I loved him so much. I love him so much.
Dave and my daughters had to leave our home. We had no money. Dave and I had been making ends meet by running the tour company together. We had gone out every night on our old school bus, him driving and me talking. I didn’t know what to do. We moved to Springfield, Illinois, where a good man put us up in his trailer. I decided I was going to marry that man, but couldn’t leave my husband behind.
I put the girls in Catholic school in Springfield with the money I could scrape together. On Sundays we drove four hours to the prison to visit Dave, after driving to Chicago Fridays to do the tours Fridays and Saturdays. We did that for a year. My mom and brother wouldn’t even let us have Christmas with them, because Dave had shamed the familuy.
When he was released on parole after a year in prison, Dave came to live with us in Springfield. I still remember as one of the happiest days of my life Christmas Eve that winter after Dave was released from prison. That night we went to Mass at St. Aloysius. I saw the parents of the man who had taken us in. They told me they were happy about my taking Dave back. They were good people. That great man I have never spoken to again.
Needless to say, Dave never got his job back. His career as a firefighter for decades–in the military and in the public sector–was destroyed. After winning many awards as a journalist and writing a book which should have received a Pulitzer Prize, he has never published anything again. New arson laws were established because of his book. Isn’t that ironic?
I went to some of Dave’s lectures with him when we first met. There were family members of the victims who would come to his lectures and come up to him after the lectures to try to get out of him the name of the kid who set the fire. They were so angry, so sad. Their vendettas had not died, would not die. Even 40 years later.
A girl who survived the fire, Michelle McBride, wrote a horrifically moving book called The Fire That Would Not Die. I do not think anyone has ever come up with a more appropriate name for a book, or for anything.
In my life with Dave these past 22 years, I have met endless streams of people affected by the Our Lady of the Angels Fire. The parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends of the victims. The nuns, priests and Church workers, schools staff and officials who witnessed the event and its fallout. The journalists, first responders and others who watched this community fall apart at the moment and in the aftermath.
December 1st. December 1st. December 1st.
And I have watched my husband and so many others try to fight against this fire that will not die. The fire haunts him, a kid from the neighborhood who felt the devastation of the fire through his family from the day he was born, five years after the fact. Sixty-one years later, the fire haunts me: a fifty-one year old woman from the North Side, born to German and Polish parents, who never heard of the fire until I became an historian when I was in my ’20s. Our family which has never recovered from the effects of the fire on just one unknown journalist, and on us, financially and–deepest of all–emotionally. I think of and pray for those who were actually and directly affected by the fire: the families who lost their children on that December 1, 1958. What have they been going through?
I watched some of this, on the Our Lady of Angels survivors and friends web forum. I recognized most of their names from Dave’s constant talking about the families and friends.
After Dave’s arson some of them lashed out at him, understandably. More than understandably. On a particularly bad night seven years ago, I told them a little of our story. Some were nice. Some hate him almost as much as the original arsonist. This is what I said:
|ursulabielski11/14/2012 13:50||I am the former spouse of David Cowan, and I just want to tell everyone that for the past fourteen years, this fire has destroyed his life. Does anyone take one moment to think about the fact that he interviewed hundreds of people that were associated with this tragedy? That he and his family lived in the neighborhood and were directly ruined by this event? That he went on to pursue firefighting as a career because of it? That he saved countless lives during his career on the west side before totally breaking down under the stress of losing the only thing he cared about? His job trying to fight fire, as he learned from when he was a little boy? Can anyone get that he broke down because of everything he was exposed to with OLA? He wrote this book to help you guys deal with what he was all too familiar with. When we started dating, and even now, years after our divorce, Dave takes me sometimes through the old neighborhood to show me his grandma’s house where he can’t go anymore. And you all know that the end of that neighborhood and all of your pain started with the fire. Today, we are divorced because of the fire. We struggle every day because of the fire. Our little girls struggle every day because of the fire. We always told people: We met, and our children were born because of the fire, and we always thought this was a great blessing, but as the years go by and he continues to be brutalized because of his own response to the fire I just don’t know anymore. Dave and I started our tour company before he committed arson. We have worked ten solid years to support our girls and have to make ends me still, with no savings or anything to show for it but the kind things people have to say about our love for the people of Chicago and our compassion for the people who have gone before us. There is no one who has more compassion for the kids at OLA than Dave does. Anyone that doesn’t know that doesn’t know him. I hope that over this next anniversary, when Dave is crying yet again because of those kids and because of what he did in a moment that had nothing to do with them, that you guys remember him.|
I always can feel the clouds gathering after Thanksgiving. I know that The Anniversary is coming. There is no escaping it for our family. It might as well be a phase of the moon in and of itself. December 1st. December 1st. December 1st. December 1st. A date that has plagued our family for twenty-two years and endless, endless people for sixty-one years.
Dave told me when I first interviewed him that, reflecting on his years growing up in the parish neighborhood, his life as a journalist, and all of the places that he has traveled, in the Air Force and after: “I always sensed a feeling of restlessness” surrounding the memory of the fire victims. He said, “This blanket of serenity is over their graves.”
Dave said that to me in 1997 and had no idea what was going to get into his head in the years to come. How he would lose his careers as both firefighter and journalist. How he would lose his family.
Dave has never gotten another job. He is now too afraid to even try. In his mind he is hated by everyone. I send him links for applications. He texts me back and says, “I’m an arsonist.”
Every day I thank God for sending my husband, David Cowan, and John Kuenster, to write the book about the Our Lady of the Angels Fire. That book will continue to ruin my life forever, I know. It will continue to ruin the lives our our children. But as an historian and mother, I know it is worth it.