Chicagoland

Remembering the Our Lady of the Angels school fire 60 years later

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
December 5, 2018

Remembering the Our Lady of the Angels school fire 60 years later

It has been 60 years, but Serge Uccetta remembers Dec. 1, 1958 like it happened recently. That’s the day fire engulfed his elementary school, Our Lady of the Angels near Hamlin and Chicago avenues, taking the lives of 95 people — 92 students and three women religious.
Members of the Royal-Airs marching drum and bugle corps participate in a Dec. 2, 2018, ceremony at Queen of Heaven Cemetery to remember 92 students and three women religious killed in the Dec. 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School. (Natalie Battaglia/Chicago Catholic)
Five-year old twins Lia, left, and Emma Stachon join in a Dec. 2, 2018, memorial service at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside to remember the victims of the Our Lady of the Angels fire. (Natalie Battaglia/Chicago Catholic)
Serge Uccetta, fire survivor and former drum major from the Royal-Airs drum and bugle corps, delivers a brief eulogy and during a Dec. 2, 2018, memorial service at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside for the victims of the Dec. 1, 1958, fire at Our Lady of the Angels School. (Natalie Battaglia/Chicago Catholic)
A crowd gathers to listen to the Royal-Airs drum and bugle corps Dec. 2, 2018, at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. (Chicago Catholic/Natalie Battaglia)
Members of the Royal-Airs marching drum and bugle corps participate in a Dec. 2, 2018, ceremony at Queen of Heaven Cemetery to remember 92 students and three women religious killed in the Dec. 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School. (Natalie Battaglia/Chicago Catholic)
Members of the Royal-Airs marching drum and bugle corps participate in a Dec. 2, 2018, ceremony at Queen of Heaven Cemetery to remember 92 students and three women religious killed in the Dec. 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School. (Natalie Battaglia/Chicago Catholic)
Serge Uccetta, fire survivor and former drum major of Royal-Airs marching drum and bugle corps, conducts the corps Dec. 2, 2018 at Queen of Angels Cemetery in Hillside. (Chicago Catholic/Natalie Battaglia)
Tom Day salutes after playing "Taps" during a Dec. 2, 2018, memorial service for the Our Lady of the Angels fire victims at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. (Chicago Catholic/Natalie Battaglia)
Angela Imbrogno, left, and Patty DeGraco hold a flag that honors 92 students and three women religious killed by the Dec. 1, 1958, fire at Our Lady of the Angels School during a Dec. 2, 2018, memorial service at Queen of Heaven Cemetery. Angela Imbrogno was in fifth grade at the time of the fire. (Chicago Catholic/Natalie Battaglia)
Loved ones still decorated the grave of Margaret Sansonetti, a 10-year-old fifth-grader the day of the fire. (Chicago Catholic/Natalie Battaglia)

It has been 60 years, but Serge Uccetta remembers Dec. 1, 1958 like it happened recently. That’s the day fire engulfed his elementary school, Our Lady of the Angels near Hamlin and Chicago avenues, taking the lives of 95 people — 92 students and three women religious.

“Let me tell you, you don’t forget something like that. It may be 60 years but it’s like it was a year ago,” Uccetta said.

Uccetta, who was 12 at the time of the fire, gave remarks at an annual service held at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside Dec. 2 at a memorial to the fire victims. The service is hosted by alumni of the Royal-Air Drum and Bugle Corps, a youth group in the Our Lady of the Angels neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s.

The group lost three of its members in the fire — Frances Guzaldo, Valerie Thoma and Roger Ramlow.

“We pledge to come here on the anniversary date of the fire as a remembrance of those three kids and all the others who passed away,” Uccetta told Chicago Catholic.

The day the fire happened was a “typical school day,” he said.

“It was the end of the day. I happened to have wastebasket duty so around 2:30 I had to take the wastebasket downstairs to the janitor.”

He met a friend on the stairs and they chatted on the way down and back up, then returned to their classrooms.

“The nun was getting ready to finish the day. About 2:45 or so the doors started rattling like it was windy in the hall,” Uccetta said.

Someone opened the door and the smoke billowed in.

“They slammed it shut. The smoke started coming in over the transom,” he said. “There was obviously no way to get out that way so everybody headed for the windows.”

Because seating was alphabetical, Uccetta was sitting in the last row next to the windows. A boy in front of him jumped out the window, hit the ground and didn’t get up. His immediate thought was, “This is not good.”

“One of the janitors had come around with a short ladder and I threw my glasses down to get his attention. He saw me and put the ladder up at my window, thank God,” Uccetta said. “I was able to hang down the window sill and scamper down.”

When he was out of the school he saw kids running, screaming and jumping from windows.

“It was a pretty horrific sight,” he said. “The tragedy decimated the entire neighborhood. Every street lost two or three kids.”

Soon after families started moving out of the neighborhood.

“A lot of kids were saying that they had friends next door who didn’t make it and it was hard for the parents looking out to the street and seeing the little kids playing because where was their child? It was very difficult.”

Patty DelGreco, a Royal-Airs alumna who attended the Dec. 2 service, was just 6 years old at the time of the fire. She remembers being with her mom as they drove back to their neighborhood and being stopped by all of the fire trucks.

“In the meantime, we’re watching all of the smoke and all of the children screaming,” DelGreco said. “People were running out of their houses everywhere with blankets and ladders.”

DelGreco’s family lived near to the school on Grand and Hamlin avenues and her mother opened up her doors to many of the children as they fled.

“By the time we got near our home on Grand Avenue all of the kids were running with no coats. Some had no shoes. They had black soot on their face,” DelGreco said. “My mom opened up the door and let them in to warm up and call home.”

Her family lost 13 relatives and neighbors in the fire and she says “it impacted my whole life.”

She’s had cancer and was in a recent car accident, but thinking of the kids who died in the fire gets her through.

“I think ‘I can do this.’ I’m not laying there all burned up.”

Not just neighborhood families were impacted that day, but first responders too.

Guy Neubert was a young motorcycle officer just off probation with the Chicago Police Department when he was called to help the fire department on Dec. 1.

The then-28-year-old officer was assigned to another district when a call came in.

“We got a call to go to Pulaski and Chicago avenue to assist the fire department. We didn’t know what the reason was.”

As they neared the area they could see the smoke but it wasn’t until they reached the police command center that they were told Our Lady of the Angels was on fire.

“I had four nephews in that fire, as did other police there,” Neubert said. “Actually, one had removed his own son.”

Following the fire, a temporary morgue was set up at the armory on Kedzie Avenue. By that time Nuebert’s brother was with him and they feared one of his nephews — Charles, 9 — was dead.

“We knew that the room that Charles was in was the room where they all perished. From there I accompanied my brother to the temporary morgue and that’s when we identified Charles.”

Neubert made the identification himself based upon a pattern of moles he saw on his nephew’s back. They were the same pattern he has on his own back.

After they made the identification, they still hadn’t found his brother’s three other sons, so they returned to the school. They soon found out that families had taken the children in to keep them safe.

One of his strongest memories from the day was a priest he knew who came to the scene comforting families and helping with removal of bodies. That was Msgr. Ed Pellicore, former pastor at Holy Rosary Parish and Our Lady of Angels, who heard about the fire while in his office at nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Neubert saw Pellicore ministering to the children, families and first responders at the school and even at the temporary morgue.

“I just can’t praise Father Pellicore enough,” Neubert said. “Just the fact that he knew the families and was able to give them comfort.”

Like many impacted by the fire the memory doesn’t go away.

“It was probably one of the saddest scenes that I ever worked in my whole career,” Neubert said.

Topics:

  • ola fire

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