our lady of the angels fire 95 students killed 50th anniversary -- chicagotribune.com
On Dec. 1, 1958, a fire consumed Our Lady of the Angels grade school on the West Side of Chicago, killing 92 children and three nuns.
A wire story from that day captured a fragment of the desperation:
"Max Stachura stood outside the burning building, begging his little boy, Mark, 9, to jump into his arms. Children were falling all about the father and he caught or stopped the fall of 12 of them. But little Mark was too frightened or he didn't understand his father. Mark didn't jump."
Fifty years later, Mark's mother has the day in crisp focus, and adds a missing detail.
As Mark stood at that second-floor window, fire to his back, he held a small statue in his hand and waved it proudly through the black smoke, hoping his father would notice. Mark had won the statue that day — a figure of an infant Jesus — for being first to answer a quiz question.
"I guess he was just so proud of that prize," said Mary Stachura, now in a retirement home in Bartlett. "I don't think he really understood what was happening."
Few of the children trapped in the school could have grasped the enormity of the danger they faced, and few of the panicky adults on the ground — parents and neighbors and firefighters — had time to reflect. They acted, grabbing ladders of all lengths from garages, reaching through broken windows to haul small, waterlogged bodies from the flames.
Max Stachura watched as other children pushed his son back, away from the window and into the flames. The boy was later identified by a homework sheet crumpled in his pocket.
Max rarely spoke of that day. He died suddenly of a heart attack at 52.
"He was much too young," said Mary, now 85. "That fire. It changed everything."
The fire at Our Lady of the Angels remains one of the worst tragedies in Chicago's history, a ghastly few hours on a cold, sunny afternoon that shattered families and knocked a hopeful, growing community forever off its path.
The cause of the fire was never officially determined, and no one was held accountable. Some parents who lost a child--or children-- found ways to blame each other and wound up divorced. Others sold their tidy two flats and moved away, hastening the flight of the middle class from the city's West Side.
"It seems as though people just couldn't get far enough away," said Jill Grannan, a curator at the Chicago History Museum. "That school and that parish is one that had a lot of people. It had a growing population. There was such a boom, and then people really just had to leave.
"I don't think the community ever really came back."
Few in the neighborhood now would recall the blaze. But for parents and firefighters, journalists and now-grown schoolchildren, the memories remain etched in intricate detail.
Steve Lasker, then a photographer for The Chicago American newspaper, was driving along Grand Avenue, heading to his newsroom after an assignment in Elmwood Park. He heard a call come over a radio tuned to the police frequency: "They're jumping out the windows!"
"But I didn't know where it was," Lasker said. A fire engine cut in front of him and he quickly turned to follow. He parked on Iowa Street and headed toward the smoke, stopping abruptly when he saw the school on Avers Avenue in flames.
"I froze for a few seconds, or maybe it was minutes, I don't know, I couldn't tell," said Lasker, now 78. "Oh my God, there's still kids in there. Mayhem was going on and they started pulling kids out of there left and right."
From atop a fire truck, Lasker shot one of the most iconic photos of the day. It showed a helmeted firefighter, his face drawn in sorrow, carrying the soaking wet, lifeless body of 10-year-old John Jajkowski Jr. from the building.
Just 28 and the father of a 6-month-old girl, Lasker felt his stomach churn as he watched the rescue through the lens of his camera. The cold wind froze tracks of tears on his face. Though many photos were published, 20 years would pass before he would voluntarily show them to anyone.
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