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 CNS Story:

CHICAGO-FIRE Dec-2-2008 (920 words) With photos. xxxn

Chicago still bears mark of tragic 1958 fire at Catholic school

By Michelle Martin
Catholic News Service

CHICAGO (CNS) -- Ninety-five people -- 92 students and three nuns who were teachers -- died in the fire that rampaged through the second floor of the north wing of Our Lady of the Angels School Dec. 1, 1958.

The tragedy, painstakingly documented in the book "To Sleep With the Angels" by David Cowan and John Kuenster and the subject of many magazine articles, books and films, led to reforms in the fire code for schools across the country and dramatic changes in school construction and fire-alarm systems in Chicago.

But more than bricks and mortar were affected: The people of the parish, especially the hundreds of students who were in the school, its surrounding neighborhood and the whole city still bear the marks of the fire.

Luciana Mordini was in seventh grade on the afternoon of the fire, sitting near the back of Room 208 at Our Lady of the Angels School.

She came to the United States, with her parents about four years earlier, from a small town in Italy with a one-room schoolhouse. Her Chicago neighborhood, with its parochial school of 1,600 children, was a lot to get used to.

But things were looking up in seventh grade. She liked her teacher, Sister Mary St. Canice Lyng, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she hung around with other kids. Life was starting to feel normal.

Then, on that cold December afternoon, everything changed. The room started to get warm. The teacher told some of the boys to open the door to check the hallway, but they couldn't open it.

"It didn't take 20 seconds for the smoke to fill the room," said Mordini, who asked that her married name not be used.

She and the other students knew already that there could be no escape through the hallway, and Sister Canice told the students to stay calm at their desks and pray.

"I thought, 'I'm not doing that,' and I went to the window," said Mordini, who isn't sure how many students followed her example because the smoke was too thick for her to see. She sat on the windowsill and dangled her legs outside. She did not see any firefighters.

To this day, she doesn't think she jumped. "I'm just not the kind of person who would do that," she said in an interview with the Catholic New World, Chicago's archdiocesan newspaper. "I truly believe someone pushed me."

If someone did, he or she probably saved her life. She broke her fall on the roof of a shed under her classroom window before tumbling to the ground. She did not suffer serious injuries from the fall, but third-degree burns on her right arm kept her in the hospital until Christmas Eve that year.

No one shielded her from the enormity of the tragedy; once she was up and around in the hospital, she was asked to help deliver newspapers to the other patients. Even so, she said, she did not comprehend the magnitude of the disaster.

"I don't think I understood it for a long, long time," she said. "People didn't talk about it. It was like, if you don't think about it, don't read about it, don't talk about it, then it didn't happen. Or it didn't happen as bad as it did."

Mordini returned to classes in March 1959 at Our Lady Help of Christians School, which had taken in Our Lady of the Angels students while their new school was under construction. The new school opened the year after she graduated.

"I don't blame the church. I don't blame the school. I blame the person who did this. In my mind, I can't see why it would be anyone else's fault. You can't blame someone unless they struck the match," she said.

"I don't even blame the nuns because they said 'stay here,' because that was how they were taught," she added.

Room 208, which was in the north wing, had 10 dead and 13 injured. Among the dead was Sister Canice, whose body was found "draped over a pile of dead pupils, evidence of her futile attempt to shield the children from the flames," according to "To Sleep With the Angels."

Room 210, next door, had 30 dead and 15 injured; Room 212 had 28 dead and 21 injured. In Room 211, 25 were killed and 17 injured. Two other classrooms on that floor suffered lighter casualties, with two killed and eight injured in Room 209, and no one killed and one injured in Room 207, which had access to the only fire escape.

No students on the school's first floor or in the south wing were hurt. Many thought the fire alarm, when it finally went off, signaled a fire drill instead of an actual emergency.

Like many of the children who survived the fire, Mordini did not talk about it much for years, not until she got involved with a group called the Friends of OLA (Our Lady of the Angels), for people who survived the fire and the loved ones of those who died.

No one was ever charged with setting the fire, but suspicion settled on a boy who was a fifth-grader at the time and who left his classroom shortly before the fire was discovered. He was later arrested as a juvenile for setting fires in Cicero, and admitted to setting the fire before recanting his confession.


Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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