Eric_W's Reviews > To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire

To Sleep with the Angels by David Cowan
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
1711431
's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: history-historiography

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 school of the fifties and had been reviewed by a fire inspector just days before the fire. It was old, had windows set high off the floor to discourage children from playing on them (many of the youngsters were too small to reach the window ledges to jump), and the building had several layers of tar on the roof after several reroofings. All this tar prevented the fire from going through the roof and venting the smoke that became deadly. Had each older layer been stripped, the interior of the building would not have become so hot and smoky so quickly, providing more time for the children to escape. The floors consisted of highly varnished, dry, and highly inflammable wood. The stairwells were open without doors at each end and they acted like chimneys, spreading the fire quickly and preventing exiting by the normal fire routes. Several rooms had two doors, but one was usually locked (the nuns had keys, but one teacher realized to her horror as she tried to shepherd children out of the room through a back door, that she had left her keys at home that day. Only the bravery of the janitor and a priest who ran back into the burning building and broke the door saved several of the children. Finally, the school was over-enrolled and the classes filled to beyond capacity (some classrooms had as many as sixty children.)

The Chicago fire code required that new construction stairwells be constructed of non-combustible materials, but the law was did not require existing building to retrofit the buildings. The school also did not have a sprinkler system.

Despite a massive investigation, authorities could only determine that the fire had most probably been set, but they could find no evidence who was responsible. Separate and independent investigations resulted in two confessions. Obviously, both could not be valid. The most likely scenario supported by what little evidence they could accumulate was the fire was probably set by a boy with a history of fire-setting who was sent to a juvenile home in Michigan for having set other fires. He admitted to setting the fire at Our Lady of the Angels where he had been a student, but he later recanted the confession. He later served a tour in Vietnam and again denied to the authors that he had set the fire at the school. To this day the fire is officially listed as "undetermined cause;" the church insists the cause was accidental.

Many students had been very seriously burned and their ordeal continues to this day. Numerous painful skin grafts could not eliminate the physical and psychological scarring. The Chicago Diocese paid $7,500 per dead child and awards up to $35,000 for those badly injured. They were anxious to put the whole matter to bed as quietly as possible. Gee, that sounds familiar. A fund set up to help defray medical expenses that continue to 1995, when the book was published, was legally closed out in 1994.

Many of the survivors suffered from "survivor's guilt," a condition made worse by the "literal canonization of victims by some nuns, who, fueled by their own repressed grief, explained to the children that `only the good ones were taken.' " Recalled one survivor," `It's funny how it plays on you, the message they were handing out to us. The ones who died were called the "lucky ones," the "chosen ones." They were the ones God wanted. `"

Many others were blamed following the fire. The school's janitor suffered in particular. He was wrongly accused of having set the fire or of not keeping the basement cleaned up. Neither charge was accurate, but he was pilloried by the neighborhood just the same. His life was ruined. The fire department was unjustly accused of delay. In reality, the call was placed to them very late because of some misunderstandings, and the fire alarm in the school building was not connected to ring in the fire department or at the call box. Once they received the alarm, the first engine company was on the scene in less than three minutes, and a 5-11 was called in almost immediately, bringing twenty-two engine companies, seven ladder companies and ten squad companies to the scene. They were able to rescue 200 children despite appalling conditions and no breathing apparatus (not used by fire companies until several years later). The church was unjustly accused of maintaining an unsafe environment for the children, yet it met all the fire codes in place at the time of its construction, and the building itself was well-maintained. A lot of what-if's.
We learn from our mistakes, and schools today are much safer relative to fire. It's unfortunate that so many children had to die for the changes to take effect.
7 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read To Sleep with the Angels.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 14, 2008 – Shelved
November 14, 2008 – Shelved as: history-historiography

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Helen (Helena/Nell) Such a detailed and interesting review. And how sad the whole thing was, how very sad.


message 2: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Great review, and this like a blow to the stomach:

Many of the survivors suffered from "survivor's guilt," a condition made worse by the "literal canonization of victims by some nuns, who, fueled by their own repressed grief, explained to the children that `only the good ones were taken.' " Recalled one survivor," `It's funny how it plays on you, the message they were handing out to us. The ones who died were called the "lucky ones," the "chosen ones." They were the ones God wanted."

What kind of monster God concept do these people have in their heads? Or maybe they were just blabbering nonsense because of their own mental distress?



Helen (Helena/Nell) The same concept, I fear, that inspires suicide bombers. They should all have read more books.


message 4: by Mark (new)

Mark Paul wrote: "Great review, and this like a blow to the stomach:

Many of the survivors suffered from "survivor's guilt," a condition made worse by the "literal canonization of victims by some nuns, who, fuele..."


Paul: The comments people make at the time of death reveal everything about their concepts of God and their theology. People who believe God takes children or anyone because "he wanted them with him" or "to be one of his angels in heaven" not only fail to comfort the people they're trying to offer solace to, but envision a God who arbitrarily plucks people off the face of the Earth (a presumably, just as arbitrarily puts them on it). Shudder.


message 5: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant That's right - in fact I think this is the general idea of God which most people have, given the random, fathomless nature of human life. In tribal societies and in pre-Christian religions God is arbitrary and cruel. In the Old testament there's a centuries-long attempt to exculpate God from his apparent cruelty and injustice, so, for example, the sufferings of the Israelites are not arbitrary, they're all divine punishments because they fell into evil ways. Christianity attempted a vastly more sophisticated justification of God. But still, the arbitrary terrifying God of pagan times is alive and well inside the Christian church, as these nuns' remarks show.


message 6: by Mark (new)

Mark
Very insightful.


back to top