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To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a…

To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire (original 1998; edition 1998)

by David Cowan (Author)

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192892,086 (4.44)39
Title:To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire
Authors:David Cowan (Author)
Info:Ivan R. Dee (1998), Edition: 1, 320 pages
Collections:Your library

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To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire by David Cowan (1998)


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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, they couldn’t go out the hallways. Kids started jumping out the windows, while others – too scared to do so – waited and hoped to be helped to safety. Ninety-two kids, ages 8 to 14, died as a result of that fire, along with three nuns.

The book takes us through the lead-up to the end of the school day when the fire started, and some of the kids and families involved. It continues to describe the fire and the rescue efforts, and the aftermath, including those kids who got out alive, but had to recover in hospital. It continued still, with the investigation into what caused the fire and through the aftermath years later, as people remembered (or tried not to). The book also has a map of the school, and it shows the number of fatalities and injured in each room. There are also photos. Devastating story, but a fascinating read (and it always feels so weird to describe these real-life disaster books this way). But, they can be (and this one is) so compelling. ( )
  LibraryCin | Apr 29, 2019 |
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. ( )
  BookConcierge | Feb 26, 2016 |
The story of one of the deadliest fires in American history that took the lives of ninety-two children and three nuns at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago. An absorbing account...a tale of terror ( )
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  Tutter | Jan 8, 2015 |
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. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
This is a gripping story of a devastating fire at an elementary school. The authors provide an unflinching view of the impact on the students and the rescue workers. In fact, these sections about the horrors witnessed by survivors and rescuers are tragic and detailed, and I suspect likely to be very difficult for many readers to endure. But the overall story is so compelling it is more than worth it. After the terrifying description of the fire itself, there are heartbreaking stories of the recovery efforts and grieving by the families and the community, and then a very compelling description of the investigation and its impacts on school buildings around the world. This book will change your perspective on fire drills, on exits, and on the safety of the buildings you enter. Sadly, it fits into a literary tradition including Triangle, Fire in the Grove, and Killer Show, demonstrating that we really are doomed to repeat history - no matter how obvious the lessons may be. ( )
1 vote williwhy | Aug 27, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Cowanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kuenster, JohnAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 156663217X, Paperback)

If burying a child has a special poignancy, the tragedy at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago almost forty years ago was an extraordinary moment of grief. One of the deadliest fires in American history, it took the lives of ninety-two children and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School, left many families physically and psychologically scarred for life, and destroyed a close-knit working-class neighborhood. This is the moving story of that fire and its consequences written by two journalists who have been obsessed with the events of that terrible day in December 1958. It is a story of ordinary people caught up in a disaster that shocked the nation. In gripping detail, those who were there—children, teachers, firefighters—describe the fear, desperation, and panic that prevailed in and around the stricken school building on that cold Monday afternoon. But beyond the flames, the story of the fire at Our Lady of the Angels became an enigma whose mystery has deepened with time: its cause was never officially explained despite evidence that it had been intentionally set by a troubled student at the school. The fire led to a complete overhaul of fire safety standards for American schools, but it left a community torn apart by grief and anger, and accusations that the Catholic church and city fathers had shielded the truth. Messrs. Cowan and Kuenster have recreated this tragedy in a powerful narrative with all the elements of a first-rate detective story.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:29 -0400)

Ninety-two children and three nuns died in a fire at a Catholic elementary school on Chicago's West Side in December 1958, and the authors interview survivors, investigate the possibility of arson, and relate the resulting changes in fire safety standards in American schools.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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