Tuesday, December 2, 2008

OLA, Fifty Years

Fifty years now. I've blogged about this event, I've written about it, and I've fictionalized the Our Lady of Angels fire as the prologue to THE HOLY TERROR. So many things went wrong that day, in the neighborhood bordering the one I grew up in. The fire house was a few blocks from the three-flat I grew up in, the school further west by a mile. A book called TO SLEEP WITH THE ANGELS, by David Cowen and John Kuenster, is an extensive history on the fire, and was published in 1996. It might have been arson, as the kid eventually confessing to the crime had been involved with setting other small fires in Cicero into the mid 60s. But he swears that on that day, he tossed a lit cigarette into a garbage can to avoid another reprimand from a nun. A waist high can made of cardboard, with aluminum at the bottom and top in a thin rind. Yet they kept those waste cans well into whenever the hell I was in fourth grade. The fire spread quick, because everything was wood, and the fire engines first went to the wrong corner (the church, not the school), then found their own ladders wouldn't reach second story windows. Grocers and cab drivers stood on the playground, catching kids as they jumped. Three rooms on the second floor had the most casualties, in one room, a survivor said the nun told the kids to sit there and pray, and they were mostly found at their desks. Many children were too small to pull their chairs to the window or climb to the sill on their own. They were 4th graders. Kids burst into flames in front of the firemen, as the fire came down from the cock loft as well as through the doors. One boy died from his burns nine months later, so the death toll was 95 kids and three nuns. This is truly an event rooted in the 1950s, in an area where every family knew another whose child or children had died. Kids from families of factory workers and house cleaners. The fireman in the photo was again interviewed after the Oklahoma City bombing, because of the photo everyone saw of Baylee Almon being handed to the paramedic. The man lives in Oak Lawn, just south of me, and he has had a very difficult life. Not just from the experience at OLA, no, he took a detour that one would more likely see in one of my fictionalized tales. I've gone to several of the anniversary masses with my friend Chris Turek, who now lives in Anchorage. Sobering is not the word, not anywhere near a description. 98 lit candles near the entrance, the regular Sunday mass now spoken in Spanish. We would be encouraged to take the candles home, I would always take that of Wayne Wisz. The last name alphabetically and the youngest of the victims, he was eleven years old when he died. Times Past.