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Legendary Chicago Fire Fighter Dies

April 8, 2009 – A retired Chicago, IL Local 2 fire fighter made famous as the subject of a newspaper photo taken during the tragic 1958 Our Lady of Angels grade school fire has died. Richard Scheidt, 81, died April 6 after returning home from the hospital where he was treated for a minor stroke.

Funeral services for Scheidt will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, April 9, 2009, in St. Gerald Church, 9310 S. 55th Ct., Oak Lawn, Illinois.

“I did not know Scheidt well, but I did have the distinct honor of meeting him,” says Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Local 2. “I cannot begin to imagine experiencing what he and the other responding fire fighters went through that day. Few things leave you speechless, but this tragedy does.”

On December 1, 1958, Scheidt was among the responders to the catholic school fire that would be one of the worst tragedies in Chicago history. Despite valiant rescue efforts by the fire fighters, 92 children and three nuns perished in the blaze.

At the time, Our Lady of Angels had 1,600 students in kindergarten through 8th grade. On that fateful December day, the fire started in the basement of the school and went undetected for as long as 30 minutes. Although fire fighters responded within four minutes of receiving the emergency call, the school was fully involved by the time they arrived.

The scene was complicated by a highly-flammable school building. There was only one fire escape, no sprinklers, no automatic fire alarm, no smoke or heat detectors, no alarm connected to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells and no fire-safe doors from the stairwells to the second floor. While the building's exterior was brick, the interior was made almost entirely of combustibles -- stairs, walls, floors, doors and roof -- all wood. The floors had been coated and re-coated many times with flammable petroleum based waxes.

After initially being misdirected to the Rectory around the corner from the school, fire fighters were quick to begin pulling out trapped children. They rescued 160 children and carried out those who succumbed to the flames.

The famous photo was taken when Scheidt brought out the body of 10-year-old John Jajkowski, Jr. He recovered 19 more, all dead. The photograph not only appeared in the Chicago American newspaper, but in newspapers around the world and on the cover of Life Magazine.

Former Local 2 President Richard Wagner did not work the infamous fire, but he did work alongside Scheidt for 12 years. “I will never forget the experience of working with him,” says Wagner. “As a fire fighter, he was fearless. But, he was never one to talk about, much less brag about, fire rescues.”

Around the fire house, Wagner said they called Scheidt “leather lungs.” “Even when the smoke was thick, he didn’t seem to be affected by it,” he says. “We didn’t have self-contained breathing apparatus back then either.”
When new building safety codes were enacted in 1949, older schools such as Our Lady of the Angels were not required to implement the safety upgrades required in all schools built after 1949.
After the fire, however, many fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide. Former Local 2 President and Chicago Fire Museum President Bill Kugleman says, “We will never know how many kids’ lives have been saved by the regulations resulting from the Our Lady of the Angels fire.”

Some 16,500 older school buildings in the United States were brought up to code within one year of the disaster. Additionally, an increased number of laws requiring schools to hold fire drills throughout the year passed.

Locally, ordinances to strengthen Chicago's fire code and new amendments to the Illinois state fire code were passed. And the Chicago City Council passed a law requiring that a fire alarm box be installed at schools and other public assembly venues.

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