Yes, Collinwood (1908) and Our Lady of Angels (1958) happened a long time ago, but in May 2012, three teenage boys mimicked a youtube.com video and set fire to hand sanitizer on a desktop in a Woodburn High School computer room and tried to put it out with paper towels. All students evacuated the building safely to a playing field, and the Salem, Oregon fire department, four alarms and a lot of mutual aid later, had the conflagration under control. On 20 November 2013, fire and heavy smoke at William Davies Middle School in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, drove students and staff from the building. A student set the fire in a bathroom stall. But those Woodburn and Hamilton Township students lived because children died in school fires again and again in the first half of the 20th Century until and including the Our Lady of Angels (OLA) school burned in Chicago in 1958 and real school fire safety reform began to take place. A National Fire Protection Association official at the time was not surprised by the OLA disaster. Not at all. He remembered history. He rejected willful ignorance.
The Ecology of Fire
Ecologists call it the built environment, but that assumes the old nature/culture dichotomy. In nature, fire is wild and out of human control as much as lightning is out of our control. We react to natural fire each summer in the West and we react to domesticated fire when it goes wild. Same thing. The domesticated fire becomes heat and light, becomes matchbooks, lighters, wood stoves, electric stoves, gas stoves, furnaces, baseboard heaters, space heaters, hot water heaters, fireplace inserts, electric lamps, hair dryers, radios, televisions, computers that can, when they fail, light off a whole lot of combustible content inside the wood and plastic buildings in which we live and learn and play and work. When fire breaks out of confinement in buildings without suppression systems, we die sometimes unless and until the fire department gets fire back under human control.
A school offers shelter from sun, rain, and wind as does any building, and, in colder, darker climates, the school provides warmth and light through controlled fire unless the lighting or heating system fails and the school has no suppression system, no means to stop the fire from going wild like it did on 4 March 1915 at the Lake View Elementary School in Collinwood, Ohio, right next door to Cleveland. The furnace ignited wood in the basement and the heating system quickly turned the building into a three-story brick oven because the central staircase from the main entrance rose to the top floor without a single doorway to stop fire. Of the 350 students in the overcrowded school, 172 died as well as two teachers and one rescuer. Nineteen of the dead students were burned beyond recognition. Lake View Elementary had fire drills that took students down the same interior stairways that acted as a chimney in the fire—to escape the fire, the students were being led into the fire. Here’s the result as described by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 2008:
As the rapidly growing heat and choking smoke quickly made the front door and stairs impassible, the students’ orderly march started to disintegrate, and they rushed toward the rear stairway exit. The younger students leaving their first-floor classrooms were joined by older students coming down from the second floor, and they quickly overwhelmed the rear stairwell exit’s capacity, crushing forward into the partitioned doorway that served the rear exit on ground level. As the younger students fell within sight of safety, the older students behind them, now sensing the genuine danger of the fire, pushed forward and climbed over their schoolmates, leading to an even greater tangled mass of bodies. Later, during the coroner’s inquest, teacher Ethel Rose estimated that three minutes elapsed from notification until the massive pile-up prevented further escape. Second-floor teacher Katherine Gollmar estimated two and a half minutes.*
At least the Lake View School, unlike the Peabody, Massachusetts, St Johns School, had one external fire escape in the back that did save the lives of one class of students. But the school needed a fire escape outside each classroom. And the Collinwood Fire Department would have made a good Max Sennett comedy were it not for the dead children. The 20-member Collinwood volunteer fire department had one horse-drawn gas-powered pumper, one hose wagon, and a small ladder truck, but the horses had to be brought to the station from a road work assignment. First due apparatus arrived 20 minutes after the alarm—and 45 minutes after the alarm, Collinwood decided to call Cleveland for mutual aid. All too late, of course.
The good citizens of Collinwood planted a memorial garden where the destroyed school once stood, and right next door, they built a two-story school with no external fire escapes; however, it did have steel joists rather than wood, which was, for some strange reason, considered an improvement in fire safety. At 1909, the NFPA president, in his speech at the 13th annual meeting, said, “We have done valuable work in formulating standards, but this is not enough. We must secure the adoptions of these standards. We must begin a campaign of education of the public.” He said that after he called Americans “careless” and “indifferent to horror.” In 1910 Collinwood decided to become part of Cleveland to get better fire protection.
Our Lady of Angels 1958
It took half a century and the Our Lady of Angels fire in Chicago to educate and to change the thinking of public officials charged with the responsibility of being sure children were not learning in fire traps. Both the Collinwood and Peabody fires generated national headlines, including front page coverage by the New York Times, but nothing reports tragedy like television.
1958. Eisenhower sat in the White House half way through his second term and America crowned Elvis king and televisions popped up in every home to broadcast a future that looked bright for those willing to get an education and work to achieve the dream of a home in the suburbs with a really big gas hog of a car parked in the driveway. Unless your kids sat in the K-8 Our Lady of Angels Catholic school in Chicago that remained trapped in the past and became a grim example of everything a building should not be where children went to be taught.
You guessed it, even in 1958, Our Lady of Angels stood with wood construction, varnished wood floors, no fire breaks, extinguishers mounted seven feet off the floor, and transom doors—those doors with the window on top that opened inward to allow cross ventilation of a classroom before air conditioning. One OLA teacher lined her students up to march out to safety when the alarm finally sounded, then shut the door immediately after seeing the thick smoke in a hallway clearly impassable. She closed the transom window and had the students return to their seats to pray for deliverance that arrived too late. Transom doors now violate fire code because glass does not resist heat well, breaks out, and then allows smoke and heat to enter a room. The students gave up prayer for a place closer to an open window where they could breath or jump. Smoke inhalation killed many of the children in the OLA fire including the two you see in the images here. Jumpers survived. One nun rolled small children rigid with panic down a flight of stairs to help them escape.
Of course the building had no sprinklers, no outside alarm pull station, no alarm connected directly to fire dispatch, and the school fire alarm policy required the mother superior to be notified before the building alarm sounded, but the mother superior could not be found by the janitor who discovered the basement fire; the mother substituted for an absent teacher and that delayed getting her decision to evacuate the school and call the fire department for 15 minutes. Fortunately for the survivors, some teachers did not wait for permission to get the hell out of the building, which had been built in 1910 and renovated and expanded several times over the years without having to comply to any other than the current fire code. So once again, a school grandfathered into a dangerously outdated fire code, did not have to retrofit and did kill. But the school building, just as in Collinwood and Plymouth, had a masonry exterior, a requirement in Chicago after the city burned to the ground in 1871, a requirement to confine future fires to one building without concern for what happened inside the building. In short, brick on the outside, wood on the inside. Another chimney for an oven with one external fire escape.
The Chicago Fire Department arrived within four minutes of the first call but by then, due to the delayed report and no automatic alarm system, the fire had control of the building and those trapped inside. By then the fire had flashed over and arriving firefighters had to watch children burn alive in windows waiting to be rescued. The same old story, but this time media from newspapers to Look Magazine to radio and television covered the fire and made collective memory loss difficult for the country that had to look at classrooms where the ceiling collapsed and killed, at classrooms with no fire damage that killed because of smoke, at classrooms with up to 60 students jammed inside that made quick exit impossible. NFPA president Percy Bugbee simply said: “There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.” The replacement school had sprinklers and a box alarm on the outside of the building connected to the alarm system inside the building to prevent the tragedy after it happened.
Click on the image to view a Chicago Tribune video on the Our Lady of Angels fire.
Anybody see a pattern here?
You already know about the 1915 St Johns School in Peabody, Massachusetts that burned seven years after the 1908 Collinwood, Ohio school fire killed 172 children and caught national attention, but Massachusetts went no further than to recommend school safety changes. In May 1923, 77 died, including 44 children, at the Cleveland School commencement in Camden, South Carolina, and the fire captured national attention, as did the 23 students and one matron who died in the Hope Development School in California in 1924. On Christmas Eve of 1924, 36 children and their parents burned to death in Babbs Switch, Oklahoma, and the story caught national attention. Source of ignition: a Christmas Tree with lit candles as decorations. The State of Oklahoma banned lit candles on Christmas trees and using bolted wire mesh on windows. You already know about the 1937 New London, Texas school explosion. In 1954 near Buffalo, New York, 15 sixth graders died in the Cleveland Hill Union Free school district elementary school fire and caught national attention. Building schools entirely of wood was thereafter prohibited. Fifty years after Collinwood, after 50 years of failed leadership and piecemeal reform here and there to prevent fires that had already killed, the Our Lady of Angels school fire killed 92 children and 3 nuns in Chicago and caught national attention. A half century and over 600 dead children and no planning. Any changes to school fire safety occurred only after kids died, and the changes added were to prevent a fire that had already happened. Monumentally stupid public decision-making. Hey, we’ll wait until people die, then we’ll do something about it in response to bad press.
However, television—not God, not the Catholic Church, not the state governments in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Illinois—made sure the OLA kids did not die in vain, made sure the past was not prologue again and again and again. The public finally heeded decades of NFPA warnings and public officials implemented NFPA school fire safety standards. Within a year after Our Lady of Angels burned, 16,500 older school buildings in the United States were brought up to current codes. According to the NFPA, since 1958, one child a year on average has died in a school fire even though thousands of fires still occur annually.
But the desire to forget the past and nullify progress remains in towns like Groton, Connecticut. The current leadership on the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District board of directors is nothing short of atavistic. Sleep well, Groton.
*Now you know why modern elementary schools are designed with one floor only with an external exit for each classroom.