Our Lady of the Angels fire survivors share their stories 60 years later

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CHICAGO — Even over 60 years later, the Our Lady of the Angels fire haunts those who managed to survive one of the deadliest school fires in U.S. history.

They gather every year at Chicago's Queen of Heaven cemetery, not to remember, but rather to make sure no one is forgotten.

Serg Uccetta was 12 years old on December 1, 1958, when fire raced through Our Lady of the Angels School on the West Side, killing 92 children and three nuns.

Uccetta said he and his classmates were trapped in their second floor classroom, so they scrambled to the windows.

"A boy in front of me on the ledge, he jumped. I sat down, looked; he didn’t get up when he hit the ground, and I thought, 'this isn’t good.' It was either jump or get pushed out," Uccetta said.

Luckily, a janitor happened by with a ladder before he had to make the decision to jump or not.

Johnna Mass Uting didn't have that option as she hung from the buildings edge.

"I’m thinking, 'oh my God, I’m going to die hanging on the ledge,' so I figure if I let go I could just walk away; well, I didn’t walk away," Uting said.

She broke her ankle in five places, but she was able to blow out 11 candles on her birthday in the hospital. Her tale along with some of her classmates are part of a new book The School's on Fire! by Rebecca Jones, who grew up hearing her parents tell the story. After setting out to tell the story of how people escaped, Ron Sarno's story helped Jones realize that's only part of the history.

"He started talking about his brother and sister, and I thought there was no way you can tell this story without talking about the children who died," Jones said.

Sarno was in fourth grade and his sister Joanne was in the same classroom, but he lost sight of her after he jumped out a window. She didn't make it, nor did his older brother Billy.

"It's been 60 years, but there’s not a day that goes by that I don't think about my brother and sister," Sarno said.

No cause of the fire has ever been determined, but the Chicago Tribune reported a fifth grader admitted to setting the fire in a wastebasket, but later recanted in front of the judge.

Dan Plovanich was in first grade, where his teacher had him to the front of the classroom for misbehaving. He and his two brothers made it out.

While they mourn the 95 who died, Plovanich and other survivors celebrate what came out of the fire. Afterwards, all schools were required to have sprinkler systems, fire doors, and alarms that go directly to fire houses.

"Lives were saved because all of the rules changed after that fire; so many, many, many children have not been killed in fires because of that school fire," Plovanich said.

While the Catholic school was rebuilt two years later, it was closed in the 90s and is now under renovations to become a community center.

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