When I was a child, my family lived across the street from Our Lady of Angels Church in Chicago. The Our Lady of Angels School stood on the opposite side of the church. On December 1, 1958 a small fire quickly accelerated into a massive torch consuming the old building and claiming 92 children and 3 nuns.
I was only four years old but the memories are vividly etched in my brain – the thick black smoke, fire engines and flashing lights through the late afternoon and evening, and most of all, the street filled with body bags.
Two years later I attended first grade in the new Our Lady of the Angels school along with upper classmates physically and emotionally scarred from the fire. Their hand-me-down coats and books reeked with smoke. Those students and a neighborhood of tearful parents were a constant reminder of what the fire stole and what it left behind.
Massive changes were made in fire safety as a result of the loss of so many young lives. Sprinkler systems, fire doors, and regular fire drills became mandatory in public buildings.
Fire safety laws also were mandated for new home construction. But once homeowners settle into their living quarters, these precautions are often forgotten. More than 40 home fires are reported every day due to candles alone, and many of these fires result in death. Most of them are caused by candles placed too close to other objects or left unattended.
Candles add an atmosphere of festivity around the holidays. This also is a time our homes are more crowded with people and decorations. We are busy and easily can forget our lit candles. Here are a few safety tips from the U.S. Fire Administration to keep in mind.
Avoid using lighted candles all together. Instead, consider battery operated flameless candles.
Use sturdy metal, glass or ceramic holders.
Keep candles at least 12 inches from anything that can burn.
Keep out of reach of children.
Never use near medical oxygen.
Use a flashlight, never a candle, for emergency lighting. Have flashlights and batteries on hand at all times.
Never put candles on a Christmas tree.
Extinguish candles before going to bed.
Also, be sure to have a sufficient number of working smoke alarms.
Should a fire occur, escape first, and then call for help. Have a fire escape plan and practice frequently with your family. Designate a meeting place. Make sure everyone knows two ways to escape from every room. Crawl low under smoke, keep your mouth covered, and never return to a burning building for any reason.
The Our Lady of the Angels fire instilled a tremendous level of respect for fire in me. I realize that I forget my lit candles so, most often, I use large candles in jars and place them on my flat, electric stove top or in the unlit fireplace.
Please weigh the ambiance created by candles against the dangers. The season cannot be festive if it isn’t safe.
©2012, Mary K. Doyle