USAFP Provides Fire Sprinkler System to Our Lady of Angels School, Site of Devastating 1958 Fire
More than 1,600 students and faculty attended Our Lady of Angels School, located in Humboldt Park on Chicago’s West Side. On December 1st, 1958, shortly before the school day ended, a fire ignited in a basement trash pile. As the fire grew, it broke a window causing a burst of fresh air to send flames rushing up the wooden stairwell like a chimney. The flames and toxic smoke spread through the school resulting in the death of ninety-two children and three Sisters. The tragedy forever shaped the way we think about fire protection in schools.
It’s tragic that weeks before the fire, Our Lady of Angels passed their most recent fire inspection. At that time Chicago’s municipal code required minimal fire protection, such as enclosed exits and fire-safe doors. Like many structures built in the early 1900s, the school was built with highly combustible wooden materials. The school was later re-built using fire-resistant material with increased safety features. However, a fire suppression system was only installed in the basement.
Although the archdiocese closed the school in the ’90s due to lack of enrollment, Our Lady of Angels continues to be a great resource in the community. Later re-named “Mission of Our Lady of the Angels,” the three-story building now provides social services to the community, including a food pantry, after-school programs, childcare, and community outreach. Without a fire sprinkler system, Our Lady of the Angels would not pass today’s stricter fire codes. That would mean losing the ability to repurpose the former school building’s classrooms into sleeping quarters.
USA Fire Protection contributed to the Mission by donating a state-of-the-art fire sprinkler system design, including engineering and the materials. Some of this work consisted of tying in the existing basement sprinkler system to the new sprinkler system retrofitted on the upper floors. Sprinkler Fitters Union Local 281 donated the funds to cover the labor and installation of the new system. Many other local contractors donated their services to help get this project completed.
On Wednesday, October 7th, Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford was joined by fellow firefighters as well as the founder and Sisters from Our Lady of Angels, the Local 281 Fitters, and the USAFP team to celebrate the completion of the new sprinkler system. News crews from across Chicago captured this historic event to remember the lives lost, and the day Our Lady of Angels became safer.
In response to the broadcasts and publication, USAFP received the following kindly worded message:
“I am a survivor of the Our Lady of the Angels fire. Additionally, my sister died in the fire. I am reaching out to you to say a sincere thank you for donating the work for the renovation of the sprinkler system at OLA. They are doing such great work for the neighborhood and now they can expand their services due to your generosity. This has been and will continue to be a living memorial to my sister and all the others who died that day. It gives me joy to know that their memory will continue to be a part of the community.“Again, sincerely – Mary Ellen (Hobik) Reeves
Mary Ellen (Hobik) Reeves goes into detail about her experience of the tragedy at Our Lady of Angels in this Daily Herald article back in 2008. We greatly appreciate Mary Ellen (Hobik) Reeves’ kind words. The USAFP team was honored to contribute to this project. We are looking forward to the positive impact it has on the community now and in the future.