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Remembrances of the Angels

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On a cold Monday afternoon, December 1, 1958, I was working at my desk in the Chicago Daily News building, then located at 400 W. Madison St., at the edge of the city's downtown area. Bill Mooney, a rewrite man, was standing to my right with a phone clamped to his ear when he suddenly shouted, "We've got a school fire on the West Side!"

From that point on, reporters and photographers from the Daily News as well as from other local newspaper offices and television and radio stations began a hasty exodus to Our Lady of the Angels elementary school at 909 N. Avers Ave., about five miles northwest of the Loop.

A fire that began in a basement stairwell area in the northeast corner of the school and was undetected for some time had roared up the stairwell, gained entrance inside the walls of the classrooms, and eventually flourished in a three-foot space between the ceiling of the second-floor classroom and the roof.

The Chicago Fire Department was summoned at 2:42 p.m., 18 minutes before classes were to be dismissed. The call was late. The fire ultimately claimed the lives of 92 students and three teaching nuns, making it the third-worst school disaster in the country's history while gaining national and international attention.

After talking to reporters and photographers who were on the scene that day, I thought that someday, someone should write a comprehensive book about what actually happened during and after the fire, what students did to survive, how firefighters reacted, why the public inquest was so superficial, and how the blaze actually started.

It was years before I began work on the book, To Sleep with the Angels, co-authored with David Cowan and finally published by Ivan R. Dee in 1996.

The book was well received, and many former students and parents who had lost children in the tragedy said it provided answers to questions they had long held about the origin and cause of the fire.

As time passed, John Trotta, whose son died in Room 211, became a close friend. He had told me the death of young John was like "a stab in the heart." We often talked about the fire and the working-class neighborhood in which it occurred. And in our conversations it was obvious that grief never left him until he died at age 90.

Memories of interviews with surviving students and nuns stuck with me for a long time. I often thought about Sister Davidis Devine, an eighth-grade teacher who helped get many of her charges to safety; about little Diane Traynor, a fourth-grader who leaped out a window of Room 210 where 30 other students died; of Lt. Stanley Wojnicki of Engine 85, first to arrive at the school, who broke down at his kitchen table in recalling his experience that day.

For some reason I felt a closeness to all the people who suffered because of the fire, perhaps because I was a father of eight kids of my own or that I went to a similar Catholic elementary school that, just like OLA, had 50 to 60 students in a classroom.

In any event, as the 50th anniversary of Our Lady of the Angels School fire approached, Ivan Dee asked me if I would write a sequel book, recapturing memories from former students, firefighters, parents, and others who would never forget that fateful day.

With the cooperation of the Friends of OLA, my task of pulling together fresh interviews for the new book was made much easier, the final result of which is Remembrances of the Angels.

Its chapters include the reminiscences of William Eddington whose son, Bill, died in a hospital in August 1959, the last student fatality; Charlene Campanale, who broke her back in a leap from her second-floor classroom; Father Patrick McPolin, C.M.F., the police chaplain who helped identify bodies at the County Morgue; Joe Murray, a member of Squad 6, who narrowly escaped death himself while working in Room 210; former newsman Bob Wiedrich, who walked through a water-soaked room after the fire was extinguished and viewed dead students crumbled against a wall; and many others.

In writing Remembrances of the Angels I felt as I did in the beginning--that tragedies such as Our Lady of the Angels School fire should never be forgotten. The deaths and injuries of the students and nuns, the emotional wounds inflicted on parents, relatives, and survivors, represent a horrible price to pay for the improved fire safety of our schools today.

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The following story is from Remembrances of the Angels: 50th Anniversary Reminiscences of the Fire No One Can Forget (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, Nov. 2008).

Father Pat McPolin

A priest belonging to the Claretian religious order, he served as a chaplain with the Chicago Police Department from 1943 to 1952 and again from 1956 to 1965. Born in St. Brendan Parish on the South Side of the city in 1916, he lived last spring in the Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home in San Pedro, California. In 1965 he left Chicago after being appointed head of the Claretian Western Province, and was based in Los Angeles. Among his many close friends in the entertainment community was actor Danny Thomas.

There was a luncheon that day in one of the big hotels downtown. Tom Lyons, chief of the uniformed force of the Chicago Police Department, was there. As the police chaplain, I was asked to give the invocation. After I did that, I stayed for lunch and sat at a side table. During the proceedings, someone got to Chief Lyons and told him, "There's a big fire going on at a school on the West Side," and the police had ordered a disaster plan put into effect.

So the chief left the speakers' table, and as he came down he said to me, "We're going to need your help too." I joined him as he went downstairs and briefed me about the fire. His chauffeur dropped me off at 221 West Madison Street where I had parked my chaplain's car, at the St. Jude Police League.

I hopped in the car--a souped-up Oldsmobile--turned on the red flasher, and used all my emergency privileges in speeding to the fire. I was never known for being a slow driver--I think I must've been going sixty miles an hour. I believe I went west on Warren Boulevard, through Garfield Park out to Hamlin Avenue because there was no truck traffic going that way. I got out to the school maybe about 3:20 p.m. Police ambulances and fire trucks galore were all
over the area.

An officer told me that the fire was virtually out by this time, and that there were kids inside the building. The ones who jumped out or were rescued had been taken to hospitals. I saw the parish priests anointing each body as it was being carried out of the school. The number of ambulances and emergency vehicles was tremendous, and the thing I remember at the time was that nobody was telling them which way to go--just get to a hospital, even though some
of the kids looked like they were dead.

In view of the fact the priests were there and taking charge of doing the anointing, I was more or less an observer to what was going on. It was chilly, and it got dark early. They had big floodlights to illuminate the place. Fire people were going through the school, room by room. There were parents all over, looking for their kids. Police couldn't help them because they didn't know which ambulance went where. They didn't take the names of any of the kids, figuring the hospitals would do that.

A disaster plan was in effect, but it wasn't coordinated at first. Soon the order went out to take all dead bodies to the County Morgue. I was informed then that it was going to be a police problem, because identification of bodies is a police responsibility. "Father," they told me, "you're going
to be needed over there. It's going to be a mob scene, with parents looking for their children."

I already knew some kids had been taken to the morgue because there was communication by radio between the hospitals and squadrols. So I got back in my car and drove to the morgue. I got there by around 6 p.m. or a little later. I don't know what the record shows about the first arrivals, but some bodies were there when I arrived. The morgue workers had cots, like skids, that were placed row upon row, covered with white sheets. As the ambulances and squadrols pulled up with more bodies, I couldn't believe what I saw. It seemed like they never stopped. Tears were streaming down the face of a policeman who was carrying in a body. "I'm thinking of my kids," he said.

It was going on seven o'clock when parents started to arrive. Before they were let into that big room in the morgue, a few nuns from the school came in and were able to identify some of the children. "Oh, no!" a nun said, evidently recognizing one of her former students. She broke down right there. It was a child she knew, or knew her family. By 7:30 the majority of the bodies had been laid out. I was asked to take part in the identification process. I had a piece of paper someplace in my belongings and used it to scribble down some notes. About four or five o'clock the next morning, my hands were greasy and black from touching human, burned flesh, and those notes still had grease on them.

They asked us to start the identification systematically because they couldn't take every parent in at once. They told us to make notes that would help in identifying the child. You could hardly tell in some cases whether it was a nine-year-old or an eleven-year-old, a boy or a girl. We jotted down things like color of hair, items of clothing, jewelry, type of medal, color of socks. In most cases, shoes had come off, but there were socks still on some of them. Clothing was burned off some of the victims.

Later we went over to the waiting room where parents were gathering. Some of them had been to hospitals, hadn't found their children, and had come to the morgue expecting the worst. They were just beyond themselves with sorrow, not knowing whether their children were there or in a
hospital they had missed.

We would give a description of some identifying item from the kids and say, "A boy with brown loafers and brown corduroy pants, wearing a St. Christopher medal." In the beginning they'd take a father and mother in together to see the victims, but it got too pathetic because the mothers would break down when they went into the room and saw all these bodies. Most of the time it was just taking the fathers through. The coroner's office had all kinds of assistants to help.

They brought the bodies of the nuns into a small separate room. One of the nuns was almost completely burned. She still had on a heavy belt that the nuns wear, and her clothing was identifiable. A nun who was at the morgue to help in the identification came with a laundry list. I remember that part of the underclothing of the nun who died was protected under that black belt and had a laundry number on it. That's how her identity was assured.

It was well after midnight when we got to the bodies of the students who had few if any identifying marks--just one shoe, a sock. How many kids wore blue stockings or socks?
Somebody from the coroner's office gave us little wooden tongue depressors that doctors use. We used them to open a victim's mouth to see the teeth, because it wasn't common then for children to have braces. Some of them did, though, or the parent would know from the teeth. They knew, for instance, that Johnny had a crooked tooth in front.

Because of the heat, some of the faces had assumed a kind of mummified look. The jaws seemed to shrink, but the mouth would be protruding and the lips would be kind of tight. Sometimes you would open an eye so the parent could see the color, whether it was blue or brown. This was the hardest part of the ordeal for the parents as well as for us.

I left the morgue after about twelve hours. My work was pretty much done. I left a little after six that morning. I went to St. Francis of Assisi Church on Roosevelt Road, near Halsted. I lived in the rectory there. I had 6:30 Mass.

As I was freshening up before putting on my vestments for the Mass, I was numb, completely numb. The shock hit me hard when I looked at my hands. They were darkened
with human oil.

At the morgue, some of the policemen didn't want to go home right away. They didn't want to meet their families because they felt the look of death was on their faces. Some of the guys told me that later. "Father," they said, "I couldn't go home. I was with death. I'd be afraid to look at my own kids. I was afraid that what I saw would be pouring out of my eyes." Their words remained with me for many years.

I told more than one policeman that night, "You keep up your spirit, you don't go to pieces now because you are doing a work of mercy. It's your job. We've got to help these people."

At the Mass that morning, my prayers were not only for the kids. They were in the Lord's hands. I think I prayed more for their parents who were suffering so greatly from the tragedy.

In all the years I was police chaplain, I walked hand in hand with death and sorrow. Many times I had to break the news of an officer killed in the line of duty to his wife and kids. I was on call twenty-four hours a day, never knowing when a call would take me to some terrible accident or killing of an officer.

But of all the experiences I had in trying to bring comfort and encouragement to others in times of tragedy, none ever affected me as much as the work I did that night at the
morgue.