Q:

What happened in the Our Lady of the Angels school fire of 1958?

A:

Quick Answer

A fire broke out in the basement of the Catholic elementary school Our Lady of the Angels on December 1, 1958, which ultimately resulted in the death of 92 children and three nuns. About an hour before the classes ended, a fire began in a cardboard trash barrel by the stairwell. Although no one was ever prosecuted, a 10-year-old boy confessed to starting the fire and gave details that no one else would have known.

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Full Answer

Even though it had passed safety inspections a few weeks prior to the fire because of a grandfathering clause in the 1949 standards, the interior was made almost completely of wood, and the wood floors were repeatedly coated in flammable wax. There were no sprinklers, automatic fire alarms, detectors or alarms to contact the fire department. There was one fire escape that could not be reached because of the thick smoke and gas, and the only four fire extinguishers were mounted too high on the wall for even the adults to reach.

The fire burned for 15 to 30 minutes undetected until the heat shattered a window and engulfed an entire staircase (and soon the first floor) in flames. By the time the 329 children and five nuns discovered the fire, it had reached the second floor. Neighbors who saw the flames called the fire department, but by then the fire had pushed the children and nuns to windows that were 25 feet above concrete and crushed rocks. It only took the fire fighters four minutes to reach the school, but by then the conditions were unbearable and children were jumping, falling, and pushing others out of the windows. The school exploded into flames, killing the children trapped inside.

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