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To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire

4.33  ·  Rating Details ·  1,026 Ratings  ·  140 Reviews
On a grey winter day in December 1958, one of the deadliest fires in American history took the lives of ninety-two children and three nuns at a Catholic elementary school on Chicago's West Side. The blaze at Our Lady of the Angels School shocked the nation. It left many families physically and psychologically scarred for life, destroyed a close-knit working-class neighborh ...more
Paperback, 299 pages
Published October 1st 1998 by Ivan R. Dee Publisher (first published 1990)
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Best Non-Fiction (non biography)
414th out of 3,952 books — 5,860 voters
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Books about Horrible Tragedies or Disasters
10th out of 126 books — 33 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,657)
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Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it really liked it
The grade school that my wife attended in St. Louis is a hideous eyesore of glass and metal and tiles of various shades of blue. It’s a vision of the future, as conceived by the 60s. According to my mother-in-law, that has not always been the case. Once upon a time, that school had been a stately brick building that architecturally resembled the church to which the school is connected. Also according to my mother-in-law, and to local myth, that stately old school was torn down in the wake of the ...more
Jul 23, 2009 Eric_W rated it it was amazing
The devastating fire that occurred in early December 1958 at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago had a lasting impact on school construction. Almost before the 5-11 alarm was struck and more than eighty fire companies arrived on the scene, 92 children and 3 nuns died, most of them on the second floor of one wing.

The authors interviewed many survivors and have woven their searing recollections into a nightmarish tale of bravery, cupidity and foolishness.

The building was a typical parochial s
Mar 21, 2015 ☕Laura rated it really liked it
This was a heartbreaking book which left me tearing up many times over. The authors present the story in a way which makes the human element very real; the terror of the children who were trapped by the fire, the anguish of the parents whose children were lost, the pain of those who survived with burns over as much as 80% of their bodies. It is one of those stories where as horrible as you expect it to be, you come to realize the reality of it is so much worse than that. The authors seemed to ha ...more
Nov 09, 2014 Michael rated it it was amazing
Amazing book!! Very sad. Very tragic. This book is extremely well written. Easy to follow and very well researched. Even though there is a lot of information it is easily absorbed and it reads like you are watching a movie. The balance of pre-fire, the actual event and the aftermath is perfect. No unnecessary information or fading off the subject. And the search for the cause is almost as gripping as the fire itself. This is a horrific event!! If you are a very sensitive or soft hearted person.. ...more
May 18, 2009 Leslie rated it really liked it
What I learned from this book is that human nature has myriad facets. This huge fire started in a Catholic school, Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago, on Dec. 1, 1958. It was huge before anyone realized that the school was even on fire. The school was massively overcrowded, 50 and 60 kids per classroom, yet had passed every inspection up to that point. It was built the way most schools were in that day: wood floors highly polished with flammable varnishes; wooden desks; transoms above the doors; ...more
Apr 25, 2015 Rosanne rated it really liked it
This is a difficult book to read as it relates a terrible tragedy at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago in the 1950's. I chose to read this because I attended another Catholic elementary school in Chicago at the time of the fire that destroyed Our Lady of Angels school. Ninety-three children and three nuns lost their lives and innumerable children suffered terrible injuries. The adults in my life including my parents and the nuns at our school kept most of the details from those of us in sc ...more
Jul 27, 2011 Jessi rated it it was amazing
Shelves: crime, death, history
This is a fantastic account of the 1958 Chicago fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in which 92 students and 3 nuns died. It looks at the events of the fire, reaction of the Catholic church and surrounding community, why the cause remains "undetermined" (despite a confession from a student), and why the construction of the school was just an tragedy waiting to happen. The most touching are the recollections of the students (many of whom were burned and/or injured when jumping from windows), th ...more
Jun 01, 2012 Jeanne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I finished this book a week ago and have not been able to add a review. It deserved five stars but was a very hard read. You know what it is about when you start the book, you know exactly how many die but I still wasn't prepared for what happened that day. I kept thinking about the families of the victims who are still alive today and wondering if they go through a single day without thinking about this tragedy. It was hard to shake reading this book over 50 years later. Well written book on a ...more
Victoria Adams
Mar 19, 2013 Victoria Adams rated it it was amazing
Incredibly moving. Beautifully written. A haunting book. Non-fiction that reads like fiction (and I wish it were).
This is a book that I have read at least three times over the years. This incident really affected our family, and was talked about often as I was growing up. I was in first grade, my sister in 7th grade and my brother in 8th grade. In those days there were Catholic churches and schools every few blocks. The day of the fire my parents heard the reports on a Chicago radio station, but the the name of the school was not mentioned at first. Our school was a short distance from Our Lady of Angels, a ...more
Aug 23, 2013 Sheila rated it it was amazing
I wanted to read this book because I felt a connection to the tragedy of the Our Lady of the Angels fire having attended Catholic schools in the west side of Chicago and in the adjoining suburb of Cicero not too many years after this event occurred. Little did I know that most of the injured children were brought to St. Anne's hospital where I was born and that a special team to care for them was led by my pediatrician growing up, Dr. Forbrich. OLA was located on Iowa street, a street I had once ...more
Sep 22, 2011 Jan rated it it was amazing
A heart wrenching and well reported story surrounding the events leading to the worst school fire in American History. I well remember that day in 1958, the TV and newspaper accounts of this tragedy and the aftermath that followed. I was horrified to discover that many of the myths we were led to believe that sensationalized this fire, i.e., the fire department didn't repond, the janitor was a drunk, the ladders weren't tall enough to reach the windows, the nuns made the children stay in their s ...more
Chad Simons
Jun 12, 2014 Chad Simons rated it really liked it
Heart breaking story of a very tragic fire. That said, I couldn't put it down. I was so concerned for the fate of the survivors, worried about the families of the deceased, and anxious to get to the bottom of why it got so bad. I can't imagine what the firefighters and families must have gone through.

Like my other reviews, this doesn't really review anything, you can read the back cover for that, but I like to leave my impression of the book. I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure if recommend it
Sep 25, 2013 Bob rated it liked it
Shelves: history
When this school burned (1958), I was in the 3rd grade in Peoria, about 150 miles from Chicago. In a school that was constructed much the same way. The only thing I knew about the event then was my Mom telling me, "There was a terrible fire in Chicago, many school kids dies, and this was horrible." We did have numerous fire drills, probably inspired by this tragedy.

This book was very well researched and it was written from the point of view of the people who were there. It was also a hard book t
Tammy Marler
This book was very hard to read. I had to put it down at times as the thoughts of what was experienced is heartbreaking. I remember seeing the pictures in the paper when I was young and it was a memory that always stayed with me. Being able to read the story, helped me understand what it was all about. There were many heros out of this sad event. Because of the overwhelming catastrophe, we sometimes forget about them. This is also proof that bad thigs need to happen in order to set standards for ...more
Katherine Addison
The fire at Our Lady of Angels School on December 1, 1958, killed 92 children and 3 nuns, caused radical changes in the fire codes for schools, and remains unsolved. Cowan & Kuenster describe the course of the disaster, the horrible aftermath, and the efforts of the investigators (sometimes against pushback from the Catholic Church) to find the person responsible. There have been two confessions, both later recanted, and no way now, in all likelihood, that the mystery will ever be definitive ...more
Jan 26, 2015 MeriBeth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, crime
To Sleep With the Angels is the only book, and thus the definitive one, regarding the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire of December 1, 1958. The book details, in excruciating detail, the events of the fire and its aftermath. The first third of the book covers the fire in detail from its initial ignition and discover through to the horrific ending when the second story of the school flashed over just before the roof partially collapsed. The combination of events killing everyone still trapped on ...more
Janice Skinner
Feb 06, 2014 Janice Skinner rated it it was amazing
This book recounts the events surrounding the 1958 fire in Our Lady of the Angels parochial school. It is heart wrenching to say the very least. There are so many ways to connect to this book: those familiar with the Chicago area, those who have attended Catholic schools, teachers, firefighters, baby boomers, and parents.
When I first saw this book I wasn't at all sure I wanted to read it. The photos in the center depicted some of the dead children being removed from the ruins. It seemed too cal
May 30, 2016 Megan rated it it was amazing
What a book. Where to begin? This book is....intense. It's definitely not for those faint of heart. This book tells the story of the fire that killed 95 people--92 kids and three nuns--at Our Lady of Angels school on December 1st, 1958.

This book is meticulously researched and takes you through the day of the fire almost minute by minute. It takes you into the classrooms and quite honestly the mental images will probably stay with me for life. There were a couple of times I had to put the book do
Nov 27, 2011 Lauren rated it it was amazing
I read this book every year around the time of the fire (late November up to early December). I feel a very personal connection to this event and it has a lot of meaning to me. I am fascinated by the events that led to, occured during and followed the tragedy and how the events unfolded back then as opposed to if the fire had happened today. God Bless all the students, parents, Sisters and others who were effected by this terrible tragedy. I will never forget.
Feb 01, 2016 Lee rated it really liked it
This book was very difficult to read. It was the day before my 13th birthday when the disaster took place and I remember being horrified by the news stories and the pictures and drawings in Life magazine. This is the story of an out-of-control fire in a Chicago parochial school that took the lives of 92 children and 3 nuns on December 1, 1958. Research was meticulous. Thirty-five plus years following the disaster, the survivors, firefighters, nuns, priests and parents of children who died were c ...more
Randy DiFrischia
Sep 03, 2016 Randy DiFrischia rated it it was amazing
This book will most likely make you cry and can be very difficult at times. At the same time the story needs to be told and passed down so tragic events as this don't happen again. Most fascinating to me is a first hand look at fire fighting during that era. Having spent many years in the fire service and well protected by safety equipment and gear it's hard to imagine those Heroes of days gone by did it with rubber coats, metal helmets and no breathing apparatus while actually making entry to k ...more
Oct 19, 2015 Lisa rated it it was amazing
Glad I read in order to know about this historical fire. Excellently written - could picture every detail of the fire. Unfortunately, I could picture every detail of the fire! Amazing read, but you need to be up for it.
May 08, 2013 Mburnham rated it liked it
Rough to read... Lots of researched and detailed facts though. A book I will remember about a very tragic event in Chicago history that I remember hearing about and seeing on the news in 1958
Apr 01, 2015 Elle rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education
I remember the events of that day like it was yesterday. I was from Detroit...they were from Chicago, but we were the same age. I celebrated Christmas that year...they did not. I remember pouring over their pictures in the paper and wondering about them...I still do. This is the story about a fire in a Chicago school just before the end of the year. Everything burned with tragic results. Little events that could have made things turn out differently come to light. The story is written in great d ...more
Dani Patarazzi
Jan 16, 2015 Dani Patarazzi rated it it was amazing
This sad story continues to fascinate me. All the "what ifs" in this book that could've changed the outcome...
Shay Caroline
Nov 16, 2013 Shay Caroline rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, history
On December 1st, 1958, in Chicago, a fire started under a remote stairway next to the boiler room in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels school. There were fire doors on the first floor, but not on the second, so after smoldering for at least a quarter of an hour and gaining heat and power, the fire leapt up the staircase, which had become a virtual chimney. Also, a disused connection to a water fountain allowed the fire inside the wall, where it found its way to the narrow cockloft above the ...more
Rose Riker
Feb 15, 2014 Rose Riker rated it it was amazing
This is about the fire at Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago on December 1, 1958 that killed 92 children and 3 nuns. I was in second grade at the time and living in New Jersey and the Catholic school I attended was probably only 20 or 30 years old. I remember seeing pictures of the school burning on TV that night and the sisters telling us to always make sure we were always in the state of grace because we never knew when our time would come. I also remember having fire drills at least onc ...more
Pat Molloy
Mar 24, 2015 Pat Molloy rated it liked it
I remember as a child, having all this concern around me about the fire safety at the school I was attending. It was a Catholic grammar school, with a brick exterior and lots of wood inside, and wooden desks and very crowded classrooms. Now I know why there was so much concern.

This is the true story of a horrible fire in Chicago, that left 95 victims: 92 children between the ages of 8 and 12, and 3 nuns. The book is well documented, and goes into depth about how the fire raged through the build
May 05, 2014 Lori rated it really liked it
This book was horrifying in the extreme with regard to its blunt descriptions of how these children died. That is not a complaint. I think it would dishonor the dead and the survivors to sugar-coat what happened. My issues with the book are more editorial. It could have used some reduction of redundant phrases and retooling of awkward phrasing. Still, it was powerful and well-researched.
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