For many years, Jim Grosso didn’t talk much about his childhood. He 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.
It had much to do with the events of Dec. 1, 1958. Grosso was a sixth-grader in Pearl Tristano’s class at Our Lady of the Angels School on the west side of Chicago. About 2:30 that afternoon, Grosso and a classmate pulled trash duty, disposing of the day’s refuse in preparation for the end of the school day. On their way back in, they noticed smoke coming from the north wing and notified Tristano, who 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,” Grosso told John Kuenster for the newly published Remembrances of the Angels, “but I distinctly remember her setting it off as we left.”
Grosso 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.
After Tristano and fellow teacher Dorothy Coughlan took their classes to the church next door, Tristano 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. 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 did not reach the unusually high second-floor windows. Students began to jump, creating the most horrifying and enduring images from this conflagration. Some died in the fall. Others broke bones. Many of those who survived were burned badly.
Ninety-two students and three nuns perished in the fire.
The building was a 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.
In spite of all that, the building had passed its last fire inspection in October.
The vast majority of students survived, but not unscathed. Some lost siblings or best friends. And many were plagued by the feelings 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. She 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, stoicism and respect for authority were the rule.
Then in 2003, Grosso’s 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 recalled. “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 attended.
“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 Nov. 30 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.
“This kind of journey is really individual,” King, who also attended the memorial, 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.”