To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire by David Cowan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
On December 1st, 1958, in Chicago, a fire started under a remote stairway next to the boiler room in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels school. There were fire doors on the first floor, but not on the second, so after smoldering for at least a quarter of an hour and gaining heat and power, the fire leapt up the staircase, which had become a virtual chimney. Also, a disused connection to a water fountain allowed the fire inside the wall, where it found its way to the narrow cockloft above the ceiling of the second floor classrooms.
By the time anyone noticed smoke, the blaze was already set to be a killer. Like the elementary school I attended, OLA was made of wood, plaster, and paint, and went up like a torch. Children were trapped because thick, suffocating smoke blocked the stairway out. In the end, 92 children died, as well as 3 nuns who perished alongside their students.
This book is extremely well written and gripping. The description of the fire itself is both horrifying and mesmerizing, but the book goes on to describe the young man who confessed to having set the fire in a trash barrel, and the effect of the fire, even decades later, on the students, the nuns and priests, the firemen, and the neighborhood as a whole.
If you like true stories about ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations, I recommend this book highly.
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