Shortly before the end of classes on December 1, 1958, a fire broke out at the Our Lady of Angels Elementary School in Chicago. Ninety-five people died in the fire, and numerous others were injured. This fire, which occurred 50 years ago, is still one of the deadliest school fires in the history of the United States.
Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager with the Bethesda, MD-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), says of the tragedy, “Poor fire protection design was a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries. Additionally, many lives were lost because the fire burned out of control for a considerable amount of time before the children were notified that an emergency existed in the building.”
At the time of the fire about 1,600 children, from kindergarten through 8th grade occupied the two-story brick and wood joist building.
The fire started in the basement at the bottom of one of the building’s interior stairways. The open stairway did not have fire-rated doors at the top of the stair. As a result, the fire spread quickly up the stair into the second floor corridors.
“Once the fire started, the stairway effectively became a chimney–allowing the hot smoke and deadly gases to spread quickly up this stair and throughout the second floor corridors,” says Jelenewicz. “This prevented the occupants from exiting through the corridors which was the only safe escape route.”
The fire department rescued many children with ground ladders or by catching those who jumped out the windows. Despite these efforts, many of the children died in their classrooms and others were forced to jump out windows to their deaths.
Also, the building was not equipped with a sprinkler system or an automatic fire alarm/detection system.
“Because of the delay in notification, the lack of adequate fire protection systems and the unprotected stairs, the occupants just didn’t have enough time to get out alive,” explains Jelenewicz.
Additional contributing factors to the number of deaths and injuries included a delay in calling the fire department.
As a result of the fire, many building requirements were enhanced to make schools safer from fire. Some of these requirements include the installation of fire alarm and automatic fire suppression systems and increasing the frequency of exit drills.
“The Our Lady of Angels Fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire,” says Jelenewicz. “The fact of the matter, however, is that today schools are much better protected. This is in large part due to the fire safety strategies and systems designed by fire protection engineers that make our world safer from fire.”