Remembering one of Chicago’s worst tragedies: Our Lady of the Angels school fire

Sixty-four years ago this week, 92 children and three of their teachers died in the Our Lady of the Angels School fire on Chicago’s West Side. The anniversary of that tragedy takes me back to a fifth grade classroom in another Chicago Catholic school two miles to the south, the day after the fire.

The talk that day was about a boy named Frankie, who had transferred from our school to Our Lady of the Angels that fall. Was he among the victims? There was no internet back then, no source of instant information, so we waited and prayed that good news would work its way back to us through friends of our former classmate’s family.

The story of the Our Lady of the Angels school fire has been told many times, and it has often been cited for bringing about major changes in fire safety standards and building construction codes.

But for the families and friends of the victims, the sense of loss was overwhelming, the new construction standards would come too late, and the future was forever changed.

Although 5-year-old Marlene Ramelli was in kindergarten at a nearby school the day of the fire and did not see the flames, its impact hit close to home.

“My brother Michael and four of our cousins were in school at OLA that day,” Marlene Ramelli Sweeney told me years later. “They all survived, but four children on my block never came home.”

Why were they gone? she wondered. The answer was beyond the understanding of a 5-year-old. “I was forever changed that day, at such a young age, but I am grateful for the life lessons that remain in my heart. We need to live the hell out of every day and give our kids and grands that extra hug before we leave for the day.”

My friend Marc Perilli attended Our Lady of the Angels school and survived the fire. His fifth grade classroom on the first floor was evacuated early. The full impact of that day would not hit home until later, but he remembers the period after the fire as a strange and difficult time for the children, the parents and the neighborhood.

“There were no grief counselors back then,” he says. “Today I do not know if I could cope with 92 deaths of children ages 9 through 13.” Years later, the book “To Sleepwith the Angels” by David Cowan and John Kuenster would help him work through the complex emotions — sorrow, guilt, and empathy — of the survivor.

“The authors put me in rooms that I did not need to ever be in. Keep in mind, the school had two wings and housed 1,600 students. I was in a first-floor classroom, so it was the aftermath that affected me at first. Then at middle age. the book put me in those classrooms that suffered the greatest losses.”

Cowan and Kuenster described the far-reaching scope of the fire. It wasn’t only a “neighborhood calamity,” they wrote, but also “a microcosm of all great tragedies: swift, cruel, and unexpected.”

Although Marlene Ramelli did not see the flames, the smell of smoke would live in her memory for a long time. She remembers sitting with her mother at their family’s dry cleaners as mothers and grandmothers carried in the coats of victims and survivors and pleaded with her parents to get rid of the smoke smell.

“This was impossible with the technology of the time,” she says. “The smoke was embedded in those garments forever.”

The evening of Dec. 1, 1958, I sat in front of the television with my parents and older brother as veteran newscasters fought off tears. That night and all the next day I wondered about Frankie, who had sat in the desk behind me the previous year in fourth grade.

Two days later, we learned he had jumped from a second-floor classroom window and survived with minor injuries. As his story came back to us, he became a symbol of hope and survival in the midst of great tragedy.

Paul Cioe grew up on the West Side and now lives in Rock Island. He is a professor emeritus at Black Hawk College in Moline.

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