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To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire

4.35  ·  Rating details ·  1,394 ratings  ·  186 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 January 28th 1998 by Ivan R. Dee Publisher (first published 1990)
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4.35  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,394 ratings  ·  186 reviews

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Jun 11, 2014 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
Rebecca McNutt
May 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was an incredibly tragic book, and up until recently I'd never even heard anything about the 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, or the number of people who lost their lives in it. Maybe because it's not recent history, but with such a high death toll of children it's a bit odd that this is one of the few books to actually discuss it in detail while also giving a voice to grieving survivors and the community which had to endure the devastating loss. Without sensationalizing or mocking ...more
Nov 14, 2008 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
I may remove my rating after thinking some more. The subject matter makes it hard to decide if I want to rate it or not. The writing is great and it is an interesting read, but the subject matter is horrific. The book is about the fire at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago. The fire took place in 1958 and killed 92 children and 3 nuns, sadly this makes it come in at the 3rd worst school fire in history. I think the part the hit me the most other than hearing the stories of the children who sur ...more
Sep 27, 2012 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
Sep 12, 2013 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
4.5 stars

On Dec. 1, 1958, a fire started in the basement of the overcrowded Our Lady of the Angels Catholic school in Chicago. The building was old and more recent fire regulations did not apply to the older buildings, as they were grandfathered in. The building had only one fire escape; it was two stories, but the only fire door was on the first floor. Because of that, the fire crept past the first floor, then exploded on to the 2nd floor. By the time the kids and nuns realized there was a fire
This book was absolutely absorbing, impossible to put down. I'm not kidding when I say I almost missed Christmas because I had to keep reading this one. Beautifully written story of a terrible disaster and its aftermath. But I warn you, this one is not for the faint of heart.
Feb 28, 2012 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
May 18, 2009 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
Josephine (Jo)
It was hard to read the facts about the deaths of all of those innocent children and some of the nuns who taught them but I kept going and I think it was a very well written and fair assessment of the events of that dreadful day in 1958. I had never heard about the fire at Our Lady of the Angels before and as I am interested in finding out more about American history I am trying to include more factual books on various events in the country’s past. As is often the case with history it is the tra ...more
May 16, 2013 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 rated it it was amazing
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
Book Concierge
On December 1, 1958 a fire at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic grade school in Chicago killed 92 pupils and three nuns. This is their story. The authors write a page-turning account of the contributing causes of the blaze and of the deaths. Compelling storytelling. I could not put it down.
Nov 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Such an intense story. And so sad. I remember crying at times while I read it. It reminds me of the Collinwood School fire in Cleveland, Ohio. So many deaths preventable...Just heartbreaking.
Victoria Adams
Mar 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Incredibly moving. Beautifully written. A haunting book. Non-fiction that reads like fiction (and I wish it were).
Rob Baker
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The heartbreaking story of Chicago school fire that claimed the lives of over 90 children as well as of three nuns. I'd heard about this fire here and there over the years (I believe my fifth grade teacher might have somehow been at the school at the time--at least fifth grade is the first time I remember hearing about the fire), then this past summer visited the school and the memorial that is now there (but was not at the time this book was written).

This intense and well-written account covers
Oct 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well written account of this horrific tragedy. It happened on my birth date so it is unlikely that I will forget about it even tho I no longer live in Chicago. This book made me cry and so angered me with the Catholic church’s stance in the whole situation. Read this book and see how it affects you. So so sad that it happened.....and why it did.
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
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
Nov 14, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Another book in the long-standing fascination with catastrophes that I have nurtured at least since I was about 10. The first disaster I recall ever having read was about the 1889 Johnstown flood, and I was off. I think I have read something about nearly every major disastrous event of this nation, and many of those abroad, everything from fires, plane crashes, natural disaster, and more. I am fascinated by how people survive and how investigations reveal what really happened. Although this disa ...more
Pam Falbo
Dec 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
WARNING: it will take emotional fortitude to read this tue account of Our Lady Of The Angels fire.

I read this book each December. I read it in remembrance of those who passed & those who survived. It is a small thing I do.

Besides the horror of the tragedy, this fire managed to rip a very close knit community apart never to mend again. Never.

I grew up in a Chicago suburb. I was 7 years old when the OLA fire occurred, the age of many of the little ones trapped in those second floor classrooms.
Aug 21, 2013 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
David Rogers
Jul 30, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Definitely a sad and tragic story. At times, though, I felt like I was reading a compilation of a series about the fire published in a newspaper. The writing was a little pedestrian and often redundant. The authors also lacked the right amount criticism of the accident. Yes, they talk about the school being a fire trap (albeit, a legal fire trap) and the lack of support given to families after the fire. But there wasn't enough about the time lost when nuns ordered their children to hold hands an ...more
Aug 21, 2011 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 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
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
Sep 10, 2013 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
Nov 27, 2011 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.
Jul 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal, thorough, heart wrenching account.
So haunting, I found myself searching for more information and discovered numerous online sites, indicating I'm not alone in experiencing the lingering effects of this particular fire as presented in this particular book, which is referenced liberally by fellow searchers.
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