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Monday, Dec. 1, 1958, was a typical early winter day in Chicago, with gloomy skies, a damp penetrating cold and patches of snow on the ground. It was my day off as a reporter for The Chicago American newspaper and, as usual, I was spending it riding as a firefighter on Rescue Squad 2. This was counter to the Chicago Fire Department rule book, but I had been doing it for a half-dozen years and no one in authority seemed to care. I was honored and proud to be accepted as a member of Squad 2 - which had a well-earned reputation as a tough company that covered a dangerous district with a heavy fire load on the city's near-west side.
It had been an unusually slow day until 2:42 P.M., when the "sounder" signaled that Engine 85 was going to a fire on Iowa Street on the far-west side. It was followed immediately by the full box alarm - four engines, two ladder trucks and a squad - indicating that the fire alarm office knew they had a working fire. I looked up the box card, wrote it on the alarm board and shouted that Squad 2 was due on the 3-11 (third alarm). We gathered around the "joker stand," listening to the radio when the 2-11 banged in. Then the battalion chief called for "every ambulance in the city" and ordered: "Give me a 5-11!" He was jumping it three alarms and we were rolling out the door, pulling on our helmets, coats and boots as the 5-11 started to ring on the joker.
We had a four-mile run to the fire and racing west on our Autocar squad wagon we could see a column of black smoke rising in the gray sky. Our adrenaline kicked in another notch and we knew that whatever lay ahead, Squad 2 would follow Captain Leroy Dean anywhere he led us and that we could handle anything we encountered. The radio reported "people trapped" and for incoming squads to "be prepared for rescue work." (Another shot of adrenaline!) Problem was we didn't have anything to prepare in those days - no SCBA masks, no power saws, no "Jaws" or other special tools. All we had were axes and pike poles. From the back bench of the squad I could see fire ambulances and police squadrolls taking victims away from the fire. It was surreal because we could only hear our own siren as we passed like rockets flying in opposite directions.
We pulled up near the southeast corner of Our Lady of the Angels School, a two-story, U-shaped building with a brick exterior and wood-lathe and plaster interior, built in 1910. The second floor of the north wing was fully involved in heavy black smoke, with flames shooting through the partially collapsed roof. We were ordered to "open up" the south-wing roof and climbed up a truck company's wooden aerial ladder. But to reach the truck we first had to run through a crowd of parents in the street who were darting back and forth like a flock of birds, looking for their kids. For a split second, my eyes met those of a woman wearing a head scarf, a beige blouse and dark-brown slacks. Her face was an expression of indescribable horror as she frantically looked for her child.
From the roof we could look across a narrow courtyard and see the full dimension of this fire. If anyone was still on the second floor, they couldn't be alive, but a frantic rescue effort was underway. We used our axes and a roof-puller ladder to open the south wing, then brought up a three-inch line and began throwing a powerful stream across the courtyard. We could see companies taking a beating as they vainly tried to fight their way into the classrooms. But we still had no idea of the lives lost on the north side of the building, where scores of children had died of smoke inhalation or were killed jumping from the windows.