For over three and a half decades, the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School was a story about death and survival. But in the last dozen years, it has taken an remarkable turn. It has become a story about healing.
On Dec. 1, 1958, three nuns and 92 students died in a terrible fire. Seventy-five more were injured-flesh burned or bones broken in the 35-foot fall from second-story windows to the pavement below.
In the aftermath, angry parents wanted answers, but none came. Many believe they know who set the fire (a 10-year-old student was the main suspect), but nothing was ever conclusively proven. The Chicago Archdiocese seemed more concerned about avoiding lawsuits than conducting a thorough investigation or helping the survivors.
No counseling was made available to the traumatized. Parents and students were told not to talk about it, that it was God's will, and they needed to get on with their lives. Feelings were suppressed, nightmares suffered in silence.
The surviving OLA students attended other schools until a new school was built, this time with fire doors, sprinklers, and the many fire prevention measures we take for granted today-measures that would have saved a lot of lives.
The students grew up and did their best to cope with vivid memories that wouldn't fade, along with nagging feelings of guilt, anger and depression. Their neighborhood was never the same. Families began to move away and within 12 years, the entire West Side had resegregated.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country soon forgot about the fire. We had other traumas to contend with. In 1963 (nine days short of the fire's fifth anniversary), Americans suffered a collective devastation when President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas.
No counseling was available then either, and the country still hasn't fully recovered. The emotions most of us experienced that weekend probably felt very familiar to the OLA fire survivors, who, as they got older, found unique ways of coping. A surprisingly large percentage became teachers, nurses, firemen, social workers, professional helpers of one sort or another-an inspiring spinoff on a sordid story.
Then in 1996, John Kuenster, a former Chicago Daily News reporter, and David Cowan published a book titled, To Sleep with the Angels, the most complete telling of the catastrophe to date.
Survivors read the book and, though it was a tough read, many found it therapeutic knowing that someone had finally told their story. One of the positive ripples was a support group, Friends of OLA, formed just as the Internet accelerated global communications, making it much easier for members of any particular diaspora to reconnect.
Anniversary memorial Masses and reunion dinners were organized. People who had tucked the experience away in their psychic closets opened the door and found they felt better for it, less alone.
The group lobbied for a memorial that was eventually installed at the school (it has since been moved to Holy Family Church, where the 50th anniversary Mass was held last Sunday).
Friends of OLA don't always talk about the fire. Often they just enjoy the unique bond forged in that fiery crucible. The get-togethers allowed many a chance to reclaim their childhood on the one hand-and to begin to put it behind them on the other.
It took 50 years, but the healing these families needed and long sought finally seems to be taking place. Even the Archdiocese has announced it is making available some long overdue counseling.
This isn't a story with a happy ending, but it is a hopeful story. OLA students didn't just survive a fire. They also survived the traumatic after-effects. Now they are beginning to heal.
If they can do it, maybe the country can, too-in time, perhaps, for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 2013.
All along, those kids at Our Lady of the Angels have been teaching us how.