A Personal View of School Tragedies

The Newtown Massacre brought back memories.

by Mike Hartnett (January 7, 2013)

On a cold December day in 1958, I was in the seventh grade, living on the south side of Chicago, when a west-side grammar school, Our Lady of Angels, caught fire. My dad was a reporter for Chicago bureau of the Associated Press and was sent to cover the fire.

He arrived in time to see little kids hanging by their fingertips on the window sills, and then finally giving way, and falling to the ground.

By the time the fire was extinguished, 92 children, most 9 or 10 years old, and three nuns were dead.

Dad came home and, without speaking, went straight to the liquor cabinet and got drunk.

That was very unlike him. He would often have a drink or two before dinner – or after – but was always telling stories about the news of the day – Chicago politics, sports, or whatever. Not this time, though.

Two or three days later, he covered the mass funeral of 20-30 children. Again, he came home without a word, and got drunk.

It wasn’t until decades later that I read To Sleep with the Angels, the story of the fire, that I began to understand the horror my dad had seen. He died about 30 years later; I’m sure those memories never left him.

Think of what those Newtown first-responders saw when they broke into that first-grade classroom.

Months later we moved to the neighborhood immediately west of the area served by Our Lady of Angels. I was the new kid in the school, in eighth grade – a very awkward time for me.

Not just for me. Our Lady of Angels was destroyed, so the survivors were sent to other nearby schools, including mine, Our Lady Help of Christians. In my class was an “Angel,” Joann McDonald, who had finally jumped from her classroom and broke her leg. She was a big, gawky girl, by eighth-grade standards, but a real nice kid, and going through the same “new kid in school” trauma that I was going through.

(God bless women’s athletics; today a big gawky girl might have an outlet – basketball or volleyball. But there was nothing like that for Joann.)

She wouldn’t have made any team, regardless, because she had operations over the year, returning to class each time with a heavy plaster cast on her leg.

In Joann’s own words: “Everybody was screaming. Two men brought ladders from the garage and put them up to the second floor. One girl hung from the ledge and got her feet on the ladder, but it was too far away for the rest of us. Then the men put the ladders together and one girl started to climb down, but the ladder fell apart and she dropped.

“The fire started coming through the walls and everybody was screaming because the fire was hurting them. I jumped out the window and landed on the roof of a shed in the alley. I must have bounced because then I landed on the ground. I felt the pain right away and couldn’t move my leg, so I knew it was broken.”

(To read more interviews with the survivors, visit www.olafire.com/survivors.asp#208.)

We graduated and went to different high schools, me to an all-boys school, Joann probably to an all-girls school. That’s the way it was in those days.

I don’t know what ever happened to Joann. I haven’t googled her because her name is so common, I assume I’d find eight gazillion entries. But I’ve never forgotten her.

God bless Joann. God bless Dad.

A postscript: The fire caused school districts throughout the country to drastically improve fire-code standards. No more highly varnished wood floors, for example. School children today are much safer from fire than they were all those years ago.

I wonder if the massacre in Newtown will result in changes.