Flashback: 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School Fire Killed 92 Students and 3...

Posted: 9/17/2012

Flashback: 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School Fire Killed 92 Students and 3 Nuns - Led to current fire protection guidelines for schools

On December 1, 1958, just a few short weeks until the holiday break, Our Lady of the Angels School caught fire in Chicago, IL. Ninety-two students and three nuns perished in the fire and many others were injured. This horrific event led to positive safety changes in the long run. It showcased the need for an improvement in school design and fire safety codes. Many schools change over time based on the student population, often without regard to fire protection. In fact, Our Lady of the Angels was originally built in 1910, but had been remodeled several times prior to the 1958 fire. This fire served as an example of why fire protection must be integrated during the design phase of new and remodeled educational buildings, and the importance of staying current on fire safety code.

The school was compliant with 1958 fire codes; however, this fire provided evidence that the fire codes of 1958 were not effective enough, and they were too lenient with grandfather clauses. The school did not have the most basic fire protection equipment that was available:
• Only 1 fire escape with a population of 1,600 students
• No automatic fire alarm
• No rate-of-rise heat detector
• No alarm connection to the fire department
• No fire-resistant stairwells
• No fire doors connected to the stairwells
• No fire sprinklers
• Fire extinguishers were mounted 7 feet high on the wall, out of reach for most adults, all located in the same wing
• Only 2 fire alarm switches, both placed in the same wing

Only weeks before the fire that intrigued the world (It was the most popular story in the U.S., Canada, and European news outlets at the time) ignited, the school had passed a fire department safety inspection. Due to a fire safety code grandfather clause, the school was not required to have 1958 current fire safety code compliancy. Schools are not the only victims to grandfather clauses, many industries, including chemical processing plants, allow grandfather clause fire protection resulting in fire building damage, employee injury, and death. One year after the Our Lady of the Angels fire, the NFPA blamed civic authorities and the Archdiocese of Chicago for allowing the school's "fire traps" to be considered legal because of the grandfather clause.

This tragedy prompted 16,500 schools in the United States to be brought up to the most current fire code within one year of the event. Additionally, the City Council of Chicago passed a law that required fire alarm boxes to be installed in front of schools and interior fire alarm systems to be connected to street fire alarm boxes. When the school was rebuilt, it had the most current fire safety standards, including fire sprinkler systems.

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