Cowan, David, and John Kuenster. To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire
. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks-Ivan R. Dee, 1996.
The fire at Our Lady of Angels School on December 1, 1958, killed 92 children and 3 nuns, caused radical changes in the fire codes for schools, and remains unsolved. Cowan & Kuenster describe the course of the disaster, the horrible aftermath, and the efforts of the investigators (sometimes against pushback from the Catholic Church) to find the person responsible. There have been two confessions, both later recanted, and no way now, in all likelihood, that the mystery will ever be definitively solved.
There are any number of horrible things about this fire, beyond the fact that it happened at all: the fact that many of the victims probably died because, even though they were aware the school was on fire, school policy was that they could not leave their classrooms unless the fire alarm rang
and the fire alarm (which had to be manually triggered) failed to ring until it was too late; the fact that the only fire escape was LOCKED
(and even when it was unlocked, it was in the back of the smallest of the classrooms and thus in practice only available to the children in that room); the fact that after the fire, the surviving children were told that the ones who died were the good ones, and that's why God took them; the inevitable way in which the legacy of stricter, safer fire codes was undercut and subverted by human greed and laziness. But the thing that terrified me the most was how fast
it happened. (Not that this is surprising--it's no secret that fire moves fast--but this book, like Young Men and Fire
, lays out that speed so that you can look at it and understand what it means.) It's not entirely clear when the fire started, or when it was first noticed, but the first call to the Fire Department was received at 2:42, the first fire trucks arrived at 2:44, and although Cowan and Kuenster's timeline is not precise, my guess is that by 2:50, seven minutes before it was declared a five-alarm fire, it was already too late. Everyone who was going to make it out of the school already had, and everyone who hadn't was already dead (and some of those who made it out were dying--the last death from the fire was in August 1959).
This is, in fact, a very good book. Cowan & Kuenster tell the story clearly and with sympathy for both victims and survivors. They fall back on clichés occasionally, but their subject is one that pushes constantly toward the boundaries of the literally undescribable, and I commend them for writing about it as well as they do.
There is a website devoted to the fire
, if you're looking for more information.