Can a Devasting School Fire Happen Again?

By Susan Black

The worst school fires in the U.S. occurred long ago. Memories of these horrific events are mostly lost to history, but their lessons are very much alive today.

In 2008, Cleveland held a centennial to commemorate the nation’s “deadliest school fire.” A hundred years earlier, a fire swept through Lake View School in Collinwood, bordering Cleveland. It killed 172 of the school’s 320 students, ages 6 to 14, two teachers, and a firefighter. It’s believed that a steam pipe in the basement overheated a wooden joist, which broke into flames that quickly spread to school walls.

Most students on the first floor were able to flee, and most on the third floor ran down a fire escape. But students on the second floor tumbled down a wide flight of stairs, and, according to news reports, were “trampled and trapped” in a narrow vestibule leading to an exit door.

Witnesses, including stunned parents, recalled a 10-foot-high “press of students” piled up inside the school’s door. The children collapsed from smoke and fumes. Several students, blackened by heat from the flames, could not be identified. They were buried in a mass grave.

Fifty years later, a fire broke out in the basement of Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School, taking the lives of 92 children and three nuns. 

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