In the wake of the recent and not-so-recent school attacks, gun control is making headlines everywhere and is the talk of many towns. The White House orders to “stem the tide of gun violence”. Illinois is the only state that does not allow concealed carry. Hospitals are asking if we own guns. Parents are wondering if they should discuss this violence with their children and if so how are they supposed to do this. It seems an entire nation has pulled together on this matter yet we are so divided on our opinions. Perhaps history can provide another perspective on the safety of our children.
The act of violence on schools is inconceivable and terrifying, as the students and faculty of Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois, experienced December 1st, 1958. This was an elementary school housing kindergarten through eighth grade consisting of 1600 pupils. It was located on the West side of Chicago and operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. This disastrous day claimed the life of 92 students and 3 nuns while injuring many more. This was not a result of gunfire or explosive devices. This was a fire that when smoke, heat, and flames prevented these children from exiting the building so that their only choices were to jump from second-floor windows 25 feet above the ground, or succumb to a burning and/or suffocating horrific death. This disaster, while shocking and unfathomable, led to major improvements in fire safety codes.
The school was clean and well maintained complying with the 1958 municipal and state fire codes. The building had no automatic fire alarms, smoke detectors, fire-resistant stairwells or fire sprinklers. These preventatives were not commercially available until 1969. The interior of the building was made of wooden materials coated with flammable petroleum-based waxes. Students hung their flammable winter coats on hooks instead of metal lockers. There were four fire extinguishers mounted seven feet high and out of reach. The building was, however, built with a brick exterior to prevent fire from spreading to other buildings as in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Classes were to be dismissed at 3:00 p.m. Ignition was determined to be from a cardboard trash barrel beginning somewhere between 2:00 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. remaining undetected for approximately 10 to 30 minutes. Once called, the fire department units arrived in four minutes, however, efforts were hampered due to being incorrectly directed to the address. The fire had been smoldering for an estimated 40 minutes and was fully out of control. Children were fighting to escape and breathe. Firemen struggled in desperate attempts to pull students from windows as classrooms literally exploded with children still in them. Many jumped with their hair and clothes on fire before they could be reached. This pure pandemonium was the scene of children screaming and frantic parents rushing to try to rescue their babies. A roof collapses probably leaving no survivors in the second floor classrooms.
As if this could not be any worse, it is the rest of the story that makes this disaster even more horrific. You see the fire was by no means an accident. While the cause was never officially determined, a fifth grade boy, age 10, confessed in 1962. He had been excused to go to the restroom about 2:00 p.m. on that fateful day. Fire investigators found burned matches in an undamaged area. This boy also confessed to setting other fires in the neighborhood and during a lie detector test he revealed details that were not made available to the public and he should not have known. He died in 2004 and officially the cause of the fire is “unknown”.
Channel 11, WTTW in Chicago, has produced an Emmy winning documentary, Angels Too Soon and The History Channel featured Hellfire, an episode in the network’s “Wrath of God” series also referencing this disaster.
Some interesting statistics of United States school disasters losing lives without gun violence include:
- The largest school disaster, March 18, 1937, when a natural gas explosion took the lives of 298 in New London, Texas, at New London School.
- Collinwood School Fire on March 4, 1908 claimed 175 in what is now Cleveland, Ohio.
- The Our Lady of the Angels School fire, with 95 lives lost, was the third highest death toll in an American school disaster.
- March 18, 1925, the “Tri-State Tornado” hit school buildings across three Midwest states killing 69 students. A school in De Soto, Illinois held the highest single toll when walls collapsed during the tornado and 33 children were killed.
- A mentally deranged school board treasurer wired dynamite under a school in Bath, Michigan, on May 18, 1927, causing an explosion that killed him, 38 students, 3 teachers, and 3 others for a total of 45 deaths.
Our Nation is deeply saddened by the tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech, NIU, Columbine, Sandy Hook, the Aurora Movie Theater and others. There is no reason to minimize any disaster that kills our children, no matter what the weapon. We cannot prevent gun violence any more than we can prevent a tornado or a hurricane. What we can do is focus on the positives. Let us learn from these horrifying events in honor of our fallen angels. We can implement measures to keep our children safe. School safety drills for fire and weather, stricter fire codes and alarms, metal detectors, improved building structures, and tornado-warning sirens are all policies and procedures that have been improved upon because of past disasters. But most of all, talk with our children. Instill morals and appreciation for life. Discuss the disasters so instead of being shocked and afraid, they might be able react to save themselves and their friends. Just as we cannot control or prevent a natural disaster, we cannot control the mind or actions of any one individual.