Legendary Chicago Fire Fighter Dies
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
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
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.