Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Photo

Firefighter Richard Scheidt rushes out of the burning school with John Jajkowski, 10, in his arms. The boy was among the students who died in a December 1, 1958, blaze at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic school in Chicago. "I tried to put myself in the place of the parents of the children I was carrying out," Scheidt later told a reporter for the now-defunct Chicago American. "I knew many of them were down in the street below the second-floor classroom I was working in. I wondered how anyone could tell them that their children did not escape."

I'm about as sentimental as a turtle. Generally, when I see a sad-sack story in the newspaper the first thing I look for is the exit. My feeling is I've got enough problems running through my head, I don't need to add to them. Often, Mrs. EB will start talking to me about some recent tragedy that everybody and his mother is talking about and I'll give her that look I have that tells her: a) I've no idea what you're talking about; b) I don't want to know what you're talking about; and c) yet, I know you're going to tell me anyway. This is a little dance we've perfected, as only two people manacled together for nearly 20 years can do.

So, I'm not quite sure how I got sucked into the story of the 1958 fire at a Chicago Catholic school that killed 95 - 92 of them children. I mean, I know how I saw it, I was perusing the morning papers as I'm wont to do. It was the photo, I think, which is why I've included it above. Something about it just hit me. At first, I assumed the child had survived - why else would there be a photo of it? Unfortunately, the child is already dead. The photo was taken by a reporter for the now-defunct Chicago American named Steve Lasker, who happened to be driving to work that day. Over his scanner he heard, "...they're jumping out windows!". At that moment, a firetruck raced alongside of him. Lasker immediately took off after it and came to Our Lady of the Angels School which was engulfed in flames and smoke. Taking his camera, Lasker shot some of the most chilling photos ever captured - perhaps none were more shocking until those that surfaced after 9/11. Tears streamed down Lasker's face as he shot the above photo and dozens like it. In fact, only a few were used. The remainder were kept hidden by Lasker for more than 20 years before he would look at them and share them with others.

The details of the fire are horrid, obviously. In 1958 Chicago - and everywhere else, I would guess - buildings did not generally have sprinkler systems. In fact, no public or private school in Chicago did. Exits were not well labeled, there were no fire drills and there was not 'emergency lighting' so that when the fire knocked out power, stairwells turned dark. Three nuns sacrificed their own lives to try to save their students, 92 of whom also died. Emergency rooms became morgues, Chicago police forcibly kept screaming and frantic parents from rushing the burning building.

One of the most harrowing and heart-wrenching stories is that of the Stachura family. While father Max Stachura looked on in horror, his 9-year old son stood at a window, smoke pouring out. Max was begging his son to jump, where Max would catch him. By the time he was done, Max Stachura had caught and saved 12 such jumpers, children who went on to live lives full of joy, sorrow, excitement, etc. His son Mark was not one of those 12 that Max was able to save. Instead, Mark was holding on to a small statue that he kept showing his father. Shortly thereafter, other children frantic to escape pushed Mark out of the way and back toward the flames. He was later identified only by a crumpled homework assignment found in his pants pocket. The statue, the Stachura family later learned, was a figure of the baby Jesus that was given to the winner of the class' daily quiz question. His parents later surmised that Mark was so proud of the prize that he wanted to make sure his father down below saw it. A nun later gave the Stachura family a replica of the statue which his mother, Mary Stachura, 85, still has, tucked away with her other mementos. Mary now lives in a retirement home. She has a photo of Mark by her bedside, and she kept the shirt and tie he is wearing in the photo. She's asked her surviving children to make sure she is buried with them so that "my little boy will always be with me." Max Stachura died of a heart attack at the age of 52. Mary believes he never recovered from the trauma of watching his son die.

This is but one of the 95 stories surrounding the individuals who perished in the fire and all of those subsequently effected. For one thing, the fire accelerated the flight of middle class families from Chicago's West Side. What had been a growing parish was decimated and slowly virtually disappeared. While no cause was ever determined, many in the community blamed the Church and the city, claiming that those two entities indeed knew the true cause but -- because it would incriminate both the Church and the city -- each agreed to cover up the evidence. In the neighborhood today, few if anyone knows the tragedy even occurred, let alone lived there 50 years later to remember it.

In the aftermath of the fire, schools around the country examined their own fire safety - indeed, the term 'fire safety' was created as a byproduct of the tragedy. Over the next ten years, sprinklers, fire drills and escape plans became the norm. About 1,100 students survived the fire - perhaps a miracle considering the rapid advance of the conflagration. A few would go on to die in Vietnam. Many more would live lives not unlike the millions of their peers from that era. None, however, was unchanged by the events. The reports of divorce among the parents of the 1,200 or so students who attended the school were drastically higher than the norm. One survivor actually went on to become a decorated Chicago firefighter, yet spent over 25 years on the force before ever sharing with any of his colleagues his harrowing escape from the burning building in 1958.

The 50th anniversary of the fire is December 1st. The little boy lying lifeless in the fireman's arms above would be 60 today. As the father of two elementary school kids, who has dreams and aspirations for his children, I pause to think about the anguish that all of those parents must have felt - and in the case of those still living, continue to feel - watching similar dreams vanish in the smoke. The fact that the tragedy took place in an environment - school - where we all consider our children to be safe makes it even harder to comprehend. Even 50 years later.

copyright 2008 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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