Tag Archives: Packers

Fire Drill

“… people extending helpful hands to do a kindness to their neighbors, and that’s a good thing.”

Alex Trebek (Nov, 2020)

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Fire Drills.  Do you remember these as a schoolchild?  Unless the memory is failing, or you were homeschooled, we all do. 

1960s, growing up in Milwaukee, going to a Catholic parochial school — yes, we had fire drills often. I mean … a lot.

Later, in high school and university – even occasionally at places I have worked – there were also fire drills. But never again so frequent – or solemn – as at OLGH elementary.

I’ve asked some old school friends about their memories.  Those who can recall have memories that generally concur with mine. 

  • The teachers (mostly nuns) took on an even more serious demeanor than we were used to.  “Screwing around” was verboten. 
  • Kids who chatted, teased, or lolly-gagged were publicly chastised afterward. 
  • The principal (I do recall Sister Marilyn) timed everything. 
  • Each class was assigned a location to orderly assemble in the parking lots, some distance from the school building.

We were told that this was extremely important; that during an actual fire there might be water coming from the fire sprinklers; and there might be smoke.  Move quickly, but orderly and calmly. Remain calm.

Couple other recollections.  The only things that made it seem “real” were the constant blaring of the fire alarm; that, and the nuns’ extra-stern decorum.  And at least one thing that made the Fire Drills seem very unreal: each room of students always evacuated to the stairs and/or exit nearest their classroom.  What if that exit or stairway was impassable owing to flames or smoke?

I’ve recently wondered about the frequency and urgency of those drills.  Was there a historical spark to trigger all this activity?

There are good reasons for such exercises.

It was 2:24PM when Frankie Grimaldi raised his hand and asked to go to the lavatory.
Permission granted, he slipped out the door of the 5th grade classroom. 
But something was wrong.  He quickly returned. 
“Miss Tristano, I smell smoke.”

November 27, 1958. 

Thanksgiving certainly seemed innocent enough, with little portent. Probably not much different from our 21st century experiences (well, 2020 was a severe exception … we hope). It fell on the 4th Thursday of the month, as it had since FDR deemed it so, back in 1939, to extend the holiday shopping season. FDR’s pen notwithstanding, this year of 1958 it fell nearly as close to December as it possibly can, due to the month’s Saturday start.

Families traveled and assembled to give thanks – to eat and drink, to visit and catch up, and convivially confabulate over current events. In more than a few households they probably spent some time huddled together around a mystical tiny cathode ray tube, embedded within a heavy box which contained many more tubes, and which rastered fluttery black-and-white pictures onto a 12 to 15” screen, sent from magically far away.

In the 1950s TV ownership exploded, from under 10% of households at the start of the decade to over 80% by 1958. And this as the number of households also grew rapidly. Owning a TV was a criterion for hosting Thanksgiving get-togethers in many families.

Many watched the annual Macy’s parade in the morning; perhaps all three hours. Two football games followed.  At mid-day was the annual Thanksgiving Day match-up between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, played at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, broadcast on CBS. That game was a turkey indeed, Detroit winning 24-14, with miscues a-plenty, each team nearing the end of poor seasons.  The Packers clinched the worst record in the NFL that desultory day (ending at a franchise all-time worst 1-10-1, two weeks later).  Later in the afternoon, over on NBC, Texas and Texas A&M concluded their mediocre seasons, Texas winning 24-0.

Well, football.  Papers indeed called the Lions-Packer game a “turkey”: full of muffs, fumbles, drops and off-target passes. One contributing reason might be Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, built in 1912 — long before domed stadiums. It offered scant protection from the weather.

What weather?

Anyone who’s lived in the upper Midwest, especially quite near the Great Lakes, is familiar with this weather pattern.  It begins to “settle in” sometime in November, and lasts – on and off, but mostly on – until the first buds of spring. The skies? Brutally dull. Simply shades of gray, often monochromatic; texture deficient; so thick and dull that it often denies human perception of the sun’s position. Breezes – transporting high humidity air near or below freezing – steadily sap energy.  Then, randomly – suddenly – a potent gust bursts forth, taking away the breath, biting the lungs. Oh, where is that hot toddy? That fireplace? That villa in Florida?

This weather slowly emotionlessly sucks away at man’s vitality … one’s zest.  That is what I recall, growing up in Milwaukee, near Lake Michigan.  And that was the bleary upper mid-west weather when the Lions beat the Packers, November 27th, Thanksgiving Day, 1958. This weather carried the weekend; and so, it seemed, would go on and on.

Yet for most it was a time of joy. There was visiting and eating and drinking and catching up on family: how are the kids?  How is your job?  How do you like the suburbs?  It was an era when large families, abundant jobs and booming suburbs were more common than not. That Sunday, November 30th, was the First Sunday of Advent: the beginning of the Christmas Season.  The holiday season had arrived.  Shoppers were out.  Christmas trees and lights were going up. 


When I was a lad I struggled with, among other things, an awfully bad case of asthma. It often debilitated me and kept me on the sidelines … from my earliest memories until I was nearly 30. The things that set me off worst were allergies, very cold air and physical activity that required hard breathing.  A combination could be a near-death experience. 

One consequence of severe asthma was that I was frequently excused from recess.  Yes, that sounds weird. Repeat: Excused from recess. Back then, in Catholic schools, recess was our Physical Education.  Just try to stop a boy from running and jumping and playing – even when there’s pollen flying around, or when chilly wintery air triggers a lung reaction. The school’s teachers and administrators, so counseled by my parents and doctors, often made me stay inside.

To keep me out of trouble, I got to hang out with and help the janitor a lot.  I was good at mopping up puke, sweeping the cafeteria floor, collecting garbage.  Most garbage was taken to the basement, and then stored near the incinerator.  Every so often I would get to watch the janitor load and fire-up that beast.  It was terrifying.  Its flue pipe rattled.  The door shook. You could watch the intensely colorful, bright dancing flames through a small window. Heat radiated from its metallic surfaces.  And … in a few minutes … several days’ worth of the school’s flammable waste was nothing but a small pile of ashes.  Plus, a sooty, expanding dark cloud, wafting across the city of Milwaukee.

Why in the world did we do that?  It seems most irresponsible to us today.  Nevertheless, schools, hospitals and institutions across America disposed of their trash that way.  Some still do.


Monday, December 1, 1958

About 250 miles west of Detroit – where the Lions played lethargically and the Packers played worse – over in Chicago, along Lake Michigan, the weekend weather had been much the same: dismal.  On Monday, surprisingly, the day broke cheery, rather calm and clear.  In many places the sun even shone through, although still chilly at only 17 degrees. Gloom and breath-sapping breezes would come in a few hours.

Our Lady of the Angels (LOA) elementary school stood over on the west side of America’s second largest city. Operated by the eponymous parish church next door and staffed mostly by nuns from the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), it fell under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Chicago.  

OLA parish, founded in 1894, had grown to be perhaps the largest within the Archdiocese, which in turn was one of the largest in America, thanks to Chicago’s growth (it was then at its max population, about 3.6 million), the Baby Boom, familiar Catholic fertility, and waves of Catholic European immigrants. For decades it was the center of worship for mostly families of Irish descent.  But since the war Italian names had become slightly more prevalent – and even some Polish and German family surnames had begun to appear as well – on the rolls of the burgeoning parish and school.

Burgeoning school.  Its K-8 enrollment was 1,600 – with 50 to 60 students in most classrooms.  The north wing was the original building, opened in 1911.  The similar south wing – parallel to the north wing and separated from it by a small courtyard – was the old church, converted to classrooms two decades before. In 1951 the two wings were joined by a slender annex, adding a few more classrooms, bringing the total to 22.  [Actually closer to 30, as Kindergarten and a 1st grade class was held in Joseph and Mary Halls, across and just down the street].

With its booming enrollment, OLA was probably 40-50% over-capacity. Despite that, academic achievement was not neglected; the reputation for Sisterly and Catholic fear-and-guilt driven discipline did not come without basis.

On this day, December 1, 1958, it’s been estimated that up to 400 students had stayed out of school.  Some due to illness, but for most probably in order to extend the long Holiday weekend.

Despite the day’s encouraging meteorological start, things changed around midday; the skies began to cloud a bit, portending that life-sucking winter pattern Midwesterners know too well.  At least it warmed to about 30 degrees … but still chilly and humid enough to make one wish for a scarf and extra layer, especially when the wind suddenly picked up.

Other than that, the day seemed perfectly normal. They said the pledge and their prayers.  They worked on Advent calendars and Christmas decorations.  They got through their lessons. Some kids probably got their knuckles wrapped. All normal. Until around 2:00 PM. 

There are many recollections and memories by survivors and witnesses of that historically tragic afternoon.  Narrative timelines overlap; some of the details recalled are conflicting; an exact sequence of events has never been precisely determined.  However, the overall big picture is the same; and it is a very big, very dark picture.

I choose, for simplicity, to work around the stories of two individuals. The first is Miss Pearl Tristino, age 24, one of the few lay teachers (that is: not a nun) at OLA. She taught 5th grade in Room 206, on the 2nd floor of the annex building, near the south wing. She had grown up near, went to school at, and still lived near OLA.  The other is James Raymond, the school janitor who had five children in the school and, apparently, was something of a handyman for the parish,

Around 2:00 Miss Tristano excused a boy to go to the restroom.  He quickly returned.  At around 2:23 she asked two boys, probably Jimmy Grosso and Wayne Kellner, to take the day’s trash down to the basement; this was customary for every classroom at that time of day, as they were preparing for dismissal at 3PM. It was considered an honor.  Jim and Wayne dumped the trash into a barrel, one of several, in the basement. The school’s trash was usually hauled over to the incinerator by the chief janitor, James Raymond, to be disposed of (burned) on Tuesdays, which would have been the very next day.   

Some historical texts say they returned with reports of smelling smoke.  Others say Miss Tristano soon permitted Frankie Grimaldie to go off to the restroom, at about 2:24.  He quickly returned saying he smelled smoke.

Either way, Pearl was alarmed.  She ducked her head out the door. She smelled it, too.  Definitely smoke.

The school rules at this point were clear.  No one could pull a fire alarm (there were only two in the entire school complex), nor even evacuate the building without the permission of the principal, who was sister superior: Sister Mary St Francis Casey.  Pranksters can always be found in student populations, and LOA was no different; frequent false alarms had driven her to this despairingly costly regulation.

Pearl ran to the classroom next door, #205 (the doors were virtually adjacent), where her friend Dorothy Coughlin taught 6th grade. Together they quickly decided to evacuate their students regardless of regulations should they not be able to quickly find the principal.  Pearl scampered down the hall of the south wing, to the school office, perhaps 20 yards … but it was vacant.  She could not have known that Sister St Francis Casey was serving as a substitute teacher on the 1st floor.  Pearl quickly returned to 205/206.  She and Dorothy evacuated their classes. On the way out, Pearl pulled one of the fire alarms … nothing happened.

Their students safely outside, an adrenaline-charged Peal Tristano hurried back into the building – the smoke now more noticeable .. more putrid. She pulled on the alarm again.  This time it did ring.  Loudly.  There were still well over 1,000 students and teachers in the burning school. However, the alarm was not connected to the Chicago Fire Department alarm system.  They were all still alone.

[The closest “fire box” – a box from which an alarm could be sent directly to the Chicago Fire Department – was two blocks away.  Stunningly these were still sparsely placed, even though fireboxes had been very useful since the first one in America was installed many decades before, in Charleston, in 1881]


The fire had begun in one of the basement trash bins, probably around 2:00PM.  Perhaps it was set by the lad Miss Tristano permitted to use the restroom.  Or, perhaps by one of the few dozen or so kids who took their classroom’s trash to the basement between then and 2:24. There has been no official cause ever found or given. It’s officially just “an accident.”  Several years later, a well-known fire bug and prankster admitted to setting the fire, hoping for a “fire alarm” – he purportedly said – and a chance to get out of school a bit early.  Further questioning revealed gaps and inconsistencies in his story; he divulged the information in a meeting with investigators conducted without permission of his parents (he was still a minor); shortly after he recanted.  And there the investigation died.

The fire smoldered and grew with insidious furtiveness, invisibly gaining strength for 25-30 minutes.  Flames then burst out of the bin, and hungrily sought anything flammable: walls, more trash, wood paneling … and oxygen.  Finally, the fire’s heat ruptured a nearby basement window.  Bolstered with fresh oxygen, carried by the cold, life-sucking December winds, the fire quickly became an inferno.

It raced up the main stairwell – its steps, handles and paneling made entirely of flammable wood:  oil-stained, and wax-polished – and reached the first-floor entry.  There it encountered perhaps the single significant useful fire safety feature of the building – a closed fireproof door.  The fire turned and raced up to the second floor.  No students or teachers on the first floor, which held the classrooms for grades 1 through 4, perished; the door saved them all.  Most barely knew there was a fire until they were outside.

There was no fire door on the second floor. Up there, in the old north wing directly above the old basement, the incinerator and trash bins, virtually everyone was taken by surprise. That is where all 95 deaths occurred: 92 students and 3 nuns.

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Near 2:30, James Raymond, he with 5 kids in the school, was returning from a nearby parish property (probably Mary Hall) where had completed some handyman tasks.  He noticed a glow from a basement window. Investigating, he found an out-of-control fire.  He ran over to the rectory (the parish priests’ residence) and told Nora Maloney, the cook and housekeeper of 26 years, that the school was on fire.  Call the Fire Department!!

At first unbelieving, she did as told.  Several minutes later (narratives give varying amounts of time) Fire Engine 85 and Fire Truck 36 pulled up – the first of several dozen fire department vehicles to appear on site – with sirens blaring, ladders and hoses and ready.  It would soon be a five-alarm fire, with 65 different Chicago Fire Department companies responding. Unfortunately, Ms Maloney had given them the address of the Rectory, on Iowa Street, nearly half a block away from the school entrances. Panicked and terrified neighbors had started to gather.  They told the fire fighters that the fire was at the school, around the corner on Avers Avenue. They would have to reposition the vehicles and hoses, costing several precious minutes.

Horrified neighbors and parents

Although 2nd floor teachers on the north wing, now trapped by impenetrable hallway smoke, had closed and sealed their classroom doors, the fire roared right up to a small overhead attic, through which it could spread unfettered.  Then onto the roof.  With fire also creeping along the hallway floors – made of asphalt tiles over wood floors – many classrooms were soon surrounded.

Before the fire brigade’s arrival, many neighbors had already brought their own ladders to the school to help evacuate students and teachers trapped on the second floor.  Unfortunately, the school’s design put these windows about 25 feet off the ground – most ladders simply didn’t reach.  [Why? The basement extended about ½ floor above the ground, and the 2nd floor windows were nearly 4 feet from the floor].  Many students who could clamber to the window ledges simply leapt to the ground.  Fatally in some cases.

His message delivered in the Rectory, Raymond returned to the school ASAP. From classroom to classroom he rambled. Through smoke and heat. He led evacuations (with benefit of knowing where the fire was likely to be worst and knowing the school layout – literally – like the back of his hand). Raymond is credited with personally physically saving at least forty children and one teacher. And countless more with his verbal directions and force of personality.

OLA fire, helicopter view (Chicago Tribune)

The storytelling could go on and on – almost all of it painfully sad. Much of it full of heroism. Some of it poor, unfortunate choices made in the most stressful of circumstances. I’ll leave that to those who are interested.  The internet is full of reports, memories, pictures, building plans, anniversary articles and analyses of the fire.  Just Google something like “Fire, Our Lady of the Angels school, December 1, 1958.”

[Warning: It is powerfully heartrending and gut wrenching to simply to do such a search, and click images.  ]

Students and teachers were taken to hospitals all over Chicago, mostly to St Anne’s Hospital, about one mile away.  St Anne’s was run by the sweet nuns of the Poor Housemaids of Jesus Christ, under the administration of Sister Almunda.  Perhaps some of the same nuns who cared for these poor burned and battered students of LOA were the same who helped welcome the eldest of my two sisters and me into the world; she was delivered there just under a year before, and I – nearly her “Irish Twin” — was born there just 2-¼ years before the fire.

The saddest of all is perhaps the passing of 8th grader, William Edington, Jr.  As if clinging to the ledge of one of LOA’s tall windows, “Billy” survived until August 9th, over 8 months after the fire.  He had undergone dozens of skin grafts; finally the paperboy’s body could take no more. He was the 95th victim.

Aftermath:

Defying credulity, LOA had already conducted six fire drills that school year.  And the school had passed a fire inspection just weeks before, on October 7th.  Passed a fire inspection!  Yes, there were many shortcomings identified – most notably no fire sprinkler system.  Also: flammable stairways, hallways, and ceilings.  Only two fire alarms (and those in a single wing) in a complex accommodating 1,600 souls – and neither of those connected to the Fire Department.  Yet for all these flaws it was “grandfathered” – given waivers on account of the buildings’ ages, with too much cost and difficulty associated to implement all the fire code regulations.

The country had suffered massively deadly school fires before LOA.  Two that were more lethal: the Lakeview School fire, in Collinwood, OH in 1908 that killed 175.  And then the Consolidated School fire, of New London, TX, caused by a gas explosion, when 294 perished in 1938.

Fireman Richard Scheidt carries out the body
of 10 year old John Jajkowski,
(Steve Lasker / Chicago American)

The fire at Our Lady of the Angels – with 95 deaths and scores of serious injuries – was a George Floyd-type of moment.  A Medgar Evers moment.  A Pearl Harbor moment. The country finally got serious about fire safety.  No cost would be spared to protect our children.  Smoke detectors, then something considered new and still evolving, went in.  Buildings were remodeled.  Fire-proof walls and fire-proof doors.  Non-flammable materials.  Smoke detectors.  Heat detectors.  All with upgrades, as technology advanced. Fire extinguishers and fire alarms: all within reach of anyone, not just taller adults. [At LOA the few fire extinguishers were seven feet off the floor; even many teachers could not have gotten to them].

Within a year over 16,000 schools in America underwent major changes to address fire danger.

Fire codes were regularly updated and rigorously enforced.  Grandfathering had to go.  Fire codes and enforcement have increased and improved so much that it is now a misnomer to call a Fire Department a Fire Department. We should call them “The department that responds to all sorts of emergencies, and occasionally even a fire.” Across the country less than 5% of FD calls are for fires.  The vast majority (about 70%) are for health emergencies.  Other emergencies (hazmat, weather cataclysms, possible gas leaks, etc) make up most of the remainder.  Sadly there are still false alarms, although most are not ill-will; just smoke scares and alarms going off.

And frequent fire drills continued, with an increased earnestness.  I started Catholic schooling in 1962.  No doubt the LOA fire and the images were still fresh in the minds of the nuns, parishes, and archdiocese. I recall they were at least once a month, but rather randomly timed.

There have been school fires since. Of course. But none completely out of control.  Very few with body counts; and those are just one, or at most two.  Over the past several decades there has been an average of one death by fire in schools per year in the US.

On the other hand, our schools now have active-shooter drills.  And bomb scares.  <Sigh. > Personally, I think we can do a lot better in protecting our children – in this regard – But I digress and didn’t want to get political.

St Anne’s is no longer a hospital.  It was converted a few decades ago to a charity-run assisted living complex for the elderly.  It’s now called Beth-Anne Life Center. Maybe I can leave this world at the same location I entered it.

OLA’s school was razed and rebuilt – completely fire-proof – within two years.  It was closed a few decades ago, due to declining interest in parochial school education, in the ‘90s.  A few charter schools have tried to make a go of it in the building.  It appears to be mostly vacant now.

The OLA church and building function has changed too.  It now finds itself in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.  Currently it serves as a faith-based “mission” doing community service and outreach in areas like childcare, after-school ed, food & clothing distribution, senior citizen programs and bible school classes. For some functions it uses parts of the otherwise-abandoned “new” school building.

Treatment of burn victims has improved fantastically since the trauma of LOA and Billy Edington’s suffering.  Development in Stem Cell technology has led to “spray on skin” treatment, which has greatly reduced need for large scale skin grafting for burn victims.


Cheesebox, Rescue
Janitor James Raymond, also alerted to the Cheesebox situation, perhaps by Fr Hunt’s frantic efforts, arrived at Room 207 at about the same time as Fr Hunt.  Like him, his shoes and slacks had been on fire, and floating cinders had burned holes in his shirt.  Raymond was also sporting a serious bloody gash across one wrist from breaking through a window. 
Sr Geralita explained: No keys.  Do you have keys?
Raymond, putting pressure on his bleeding wrist, looked dolefully down at the dozens of keys hanging from his key chain.  “Yes, but which one?”
Outside and all around the fire had burst through onto the roof.  The room was beginning to flash over.
By God’s grace the very 1st key he tried opened the door.  As Sister sheparded kids through the door and onto the escape, Raymond and Hunt swept the smoke-filled room for kids hiding under desks, their noses to the floor for the cleanest air.
There were no fatalities in the Cheesebox.  Assured all students were out, the 3 adults stepped onto the escape just as the room completely flashed over: everything in 207 was on fire or melting.

[Of all days. Sister Geralita never forgave herself for forgetting the backdoor keys to the fire escape that day.]



I sort of feel like 2020 has been a metaphoric fire drill. This virus and all this crap is not going to wipe out our species: not even close. Yes, people have died, suffered, and been dragged through anguish. This too, shall pass. Still, 2020 has been a serious thing:  including the virus and how we respond to it.

So, principal mother superior. How are we doing?  Are we pushing and sniping in the hallways? Shoving or being respectful down the stairways? Are we minding the tasks at hand: taking care of ourselves, those we love, our fellow humans?  Are we yelling boisterously at each other? 

What are we going to change going forward?  Ourselves? I can do better, myself.

Right now, I think we all suck at this fire drill. We suck. We are wasting a possible “Pearl Harbor moment.” Is there a contemporary social metaphor for nuns of the ‘50s and ‘60s wrapping our knuckles and boxing our ears? Because we deserve it.  Each of us can take this opportunity to step back, objectively critique ourselves (not others, please) and move forward with more clarity in our primary individual human roles and responsibilities: that is, with sympathy, compassion, kindness, respect, and patience. 

Along with Alex Trebek, another Canadian-American, I have hope. 

“In spite of what America and the rest of the world is experiencing right now, there are many reasons to be thankful. There are more and more people extending helpful hands to do a kindness to their neighbors, and that’s a good thing. Keep the faith; we’re gonna get through all of this, and we will be a better society because of it. ”

Alex Trebek (Farewell Thanksgiving message, RIP, November, 2020).

The horrible fire of December 1, 1958 helped make us better.  I believe the tempering fire of 2020 will help make us better, too.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Resources/Bibliography:  These are all easily found.  The best is a very well researched and written book called “To Sleep with the Angels”, by David Cowan and John Kuenster

Short general resources:

https://guides.library.illinois.edu/c.php?g=416856&p=2840506

https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-media/NFPA-Journal/2008/July-August-2008/Features/When-the-Angels-Came-Calling

Chicago Weather, Dec 1, 1958  

Maps, classes and students: https://www.olafire.com/Survivors.asp#206

Relative Humidity calc: http://bmcnoldy.rsmas.miami.edu/Humidity.html

Summary: https://www.olafire.com/FireSummary.asp

FAQ: https://www.olafire.com/FAQ.asp

Jim Grosso interview and recollection: https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/12-2-2008/Reclaiming-a-charred-childhood/