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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
UBC: Cowan & Kuenster 
5th-Mar-2014 03:50 pm
ws: hamlet
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.
5th-Mar-2014 10:02 pm (UTC)
Is this the one where a lot of people were crushed to death in the outside doorway because of the construction of exit? Or was that a different school fire I'm thinking of?
5th-Mar-2014 10:06 pm (UTC)
No, horribly enough, that was a different school fire. Because the fire was started in a stairwell (which acted as a chimney), and because there were no fire doors on the second floor, the children in Our Lady of Angels were trapped by the fire in their classrooms.
5th-Mar-2014 10:09 pm (UTC)
Ah, okay. I don't remember which school that was, then. One where the people who could get downstairs to the exit still mostly didn't make it out.

. . . god, I cannot conceive of living in a time when safety codes were that absent or unenforced. It's terrifying.
5th-Mar-2014 11:34 pm (UTC)
Might be St. John's.
5th-Mar-2014 11:35 pm (UTC)
Yes, I believe that was it. Thank you.
6th-Mar-2014 07:37 am (UTC)
The one I know about that sounds like what you're describing is the Collinwood school fire. Though apparently there was more than one like it...

We don't build with wood where I live, so while fires do happen and take lives (especially in the case of wildfires), they don't spread through buildings like this. It's horrifying to think about.
6th-Mar-2014 08:11 am (UTC)
It's kind of awful that now I'm not sure which devastating school fire it was. The name Collinwood sounds more familiar to me, but I honestly though it was St. John's when ckd said that.
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