For many years, Jim Grosso didn’t talk much about his childhood, tried not to think much about it.
“It’s like my entire time in grade school had a negative connotation,” he said in an interview about a year ago, “feelings of anger and guilt and sadness.”
His wife, Mary, used to ask, “Why don’t you ever talk about that?” Jim would tell her, “I really don’t know why. I just don’t want to.
“I shut down thoughts about my grammar school experience for years.”
It had much to do with the events of Dec. 1, 1958. Jim was a sixth-grader in Pearl Tristano’s class at Our Lady of the Angels School on the West Side. About 2:30 that afternoon, Jim and a classmate pulled trash duty, disposing of the day’s refuse in preparation for the end of the school day at 3 p.m. On their way back in, they noticed smoke coming from the north wing and notified Miss Tristano, who confirmed their observation and led her students out of the building, pulling the fire alarm on the way.
But the fire alarm didn’t sound.
“I don’t remember hearing the bell,” Jim told John Kuenster for the newly published oral history book, Remembrances of the Angels, “but I distinctly remember her setting it off as we left.”
Jim and his entire class got out safely, but not everyone did. The students on the second floor of the north wing were soon trapped by the heat and thick, black smoke.
According to the 1996 book, To Sleep with the Angels, by Kuenster and David Cowan, the first thorough account of the catastrophe, investigators later determined that the fire began in the basement at the bottom of a little used stairwell in the north wing, in a trash bin filled with paper and cardboard.
The building, though lovingly cared for, was a fire safety nightmare. Constructed of flammable materials, largely varnished wood and plaster, it had no sprinkler system or smoke detectors, only one fire escape, no firebox outside, an inside fire alarm that wasn’t wired to the local fire station and which didn’t work the first time its switch was flipped.
The first floor hallway at the school did have a fire door separating it from the stairwell in question, but the second floor did not-in effect, turning that stairwell into a chimney, up which the flames and heavy smoke swept toward six teachers and 329 unsuspecting students (the school held some 1,600, though many were absent on this first day back from Thanksgiving break). At the same time, the fire had traveled up an open pipe shaft inside the wall to the cockloft between the roof and ceiling, so the fire was already well established overhead by the time the smoke from the stairwell reached the second floor.
After Tristano and fellow teacher Dorothy Coughlan took their two classes to the church next door, Tristano, who lived with her parents in Oak Park at the time, returned and flipped the switch again. This time the alarm sounded.
Unfortunately, it didn’t help the students on the second floor of the north wing. The teachers (all BVM nuns, i.e. Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and students became aware that something was wrong when they smelled smoke and noticed their rooms becoming very warm.
They didn’t have much time to react. When doors were opened to the hallway, thick black smoke rolled in and the heat was already too intense to attempt an evacuation.
The students and teachers crowded the open windows and started screaming for help. That’s where the first fire units found them when they arrived on the scene. Many of the ladders available did not reach the unusually high second floor windows. That, and the rapid advance of the fire, is what caused the students to start jumping, the most horrifying and enduring image from this conflagration. Some died in the fall. Others broke bones. Many of those who survived were burned badly. And, of course, many never got out of the building at all.
Ninety-two students and three nuns perished in the fire that would change building codes and the lives of everyone present that day.
The vast majority of students survived, but not unscathed. Some lost siblings or best friends. And many were plagued by the feelings Jim Grosso described-anger, guilt and sadness.
“They were told not to talk about it,” said Carolen King a clinical social worker with a private practice in Oak Park who was in first grade at the school that day (and lost an older brother in the fire).
“Most of the kids got out, but they still experienced trauma-and the after-effects of a school and community attempting to come back.”
“Post-traumatic stress syndrome” hadn’t been identified yet and in this Catholic, blue-collar neighborhood made up of Italian, Irish and Polish immigrant families, stoicism and respect for authority were the rule, so everyone shut up and tried to get back to normal.
Jim Grosso did the same. He graduated from the new (and vastly improved, from a fire safety standpoint) Our Lady of the Angels, attended Fenwick, then Loyola University, served a stint in the military, got married and bought a house in Oak Park in 1974. He and his wife raised three boys, with Jim working as a manufacturing engineer in the automotive industry, then switching to information technology. He’s now a private consultant.
But his childhood remained off limits until he came across Kuenster and Cowan’s book. He could only read it a little at a time over a long period of time, but he read it. Then in 2003, his wife came across a Web site for Friends of Our Lady of the Angels (www.olafire.com/Friends of OLA). He noticed a meeting was scheduled to organize reunion events, and against his better judgment, decided to attend.
“All the way there I was having second thoughts,” he recalls. “Then I looked down and noticed I was speeding.”
When he arrived and met some of his old classmates, he said, “I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.”
In 2004, the class of 1962 held its first ever reunion. Sixty percent of the class showed up. It wasn’t uncomfortable at all starting conversations with people he hadn’t seen in 42 years.
“I learned not to hold things in, to keep an open mind,” he said. “I had assumed my whole youth was a bad place. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t think about it. I found out that was exactly the wrong thing to do.”
He stayed involved and became one of the organizers of the 50th anniversary memorial Mass, held last Sunday at Holy Family Church (Our Lady of the Angels parish no longer exists-a Baptist congregation uses the church and a charter school now occupies the school building).
Grosso, his wife, and sons Adam and Mike are musicians, so they helped make up the choir and band, and were joined by a famous fellow alum, Jonathan Cain, keyboardist for the rock band Journey (co-writer of the hit “Don’t Stop Believin'”). Cain was a third-grader on that fateful day and still known by his given name, Leonard Friga. Cain composed a song for Sunday’s gathering, “The Day They Became Angels,” which he played at the Mass. The song is available free on his Web site (www.jonathancain.com), but he also had a thousand CDs to hand out to those in attendance.
Good thing he brought that many.
“We had received responses indicating about 400 people would be coming,” Grosso said. “We optimistically expected around 600, but we ran out of programs after giving out 1,000 half an hour before Mass started. Our best guess is 1,200 to 1,300 were there.”
Carolen King was one of them, along with numerous members of her family. The first thing she noticed was how many fewer parents were in attendance. “We’re the older crowd now,” she said. Her brother, who was in seventh grade in 1958, came in from Seattle. “It was really nice for him,” King said.
The Mass was “very compassionate and respectful,” she said, describing it as “a sacred time, a time for healing. There wasn’t so much joy as a sense of peace and a nice sense of community. It had that air of the Phoenix rising from the ashes.”
“This kind of journey is really individual,” she said. “Everyone takes his or her own path. We were all there for different reasons. But the more connected you are, the more sense you make of this abnormal experience-and that can only be good.”
Jim Grosso said, “It was an extremely emotional experience, as I’m sure you can imagine. As a healing experience, I guess time will tell, but I think the Mass did wonders for many of us, based on talking with different people at the reception. I think it also gave my sons a chance to maybe see another side of me and learn a little more about their roots.
“It’s all still sinking in at this point.”