Sunday, April 16, 2023

Rushing to face death, then telling the tale

     This is the latest in a series celebrating the role the Sun-Times plays on its 75th anniversary. Jesse Howe created a dramatic online graphic version of this story that explodes that first paragraph against a backdrop of images. It also represents a shift, at least for me, in thinking. I thought Howe was developing a "slide show" — a graphic presentation to accompany the story. But I see now what he's done IS the story, with a way-cool interactive presentation. There is no other publication of the piece, except I suppose the top here. You're free to draw your own conclusion, but I like it. It's vivid. 

     A CTA streetcar collides with a gasoline truck. A Catholic elementary school turns into an inferno. An Illinois Central rush-hour express train slams into a packed local commuter train. An American Airlines DC-10 loses an engine while taking off from O’Hare and explodes into the ground. One L train hits another and tumbles off the elevated tracks.

     For 75 years, Sun-Times reporters and photographers have been hard on the heels of first responders at tragedies great and small. Some are seared into the collective memory of the city. Most are quickly forgotten, except of course by the survivors who lived through them and the journalists who gathered their stories. 
     One thing that leaps out is the access that newspapers once automatically received. After a CTA Green Hornet streetcar hit a gasoline truck at 63rd and State on May 25, 1950, trapping 34 people who burned alive in the “Death Trolley,” the Sun-Times ran photos of dazed survivors taken at hospitals, of investigators going over charred possessions of victims, of relatives prostrate with grief after identifying their loved ones at the city morgue.
     In 1958, the Sun-Times and Chicago’s three other major daily newspapers were supplied with spot news by the famed City News Bureau, whose Charles Remsberg — a 22-year-old intern who’d graduated from Medill that June — was at Traffic Court on the afternoon of Dec. 1 when his desk told him to hurry over to Humboldt Park, to Our Lady of the Angels School.
     “I ran around to the front of the school,” Remsberg wrote to his parents the next day. “The north side of the building looked like a cereal box in an incinerator. Smoke was pouring out of every window, casting a light fog over the ground area and a dense pall above. At the back of the wing, flames still were leaping up. Police were struggling to keep a huge crowd of adults and children back of the fire lines. After getting a good overall picture of the scene, I headed for the phone. Women in the crowd were hysterical, their faces twisted and wet with tears. Men were holding them back, but they were screaming, ‘Where are they? Where are they?’”

To continue reading, click here.


  1. Thanks for sharing Howe’s work. I loved it.

  2. I remember the Queen of Angels fire-I was in 8th grade at a Catholic school; after, there was a big push to make sure schools had at least the minimum for safety.

  3. It's always especially tragic to read about OLA.

  4. An incredible compendium, and a marvelous tribute. The L-Train accident (disaster) will forever, be riveted in my memory. Paul Teodo

  5. Gorgeously presented! Such a great and timely reminder of what we lose every time a newspaper bites the dust--or slashes its staff. Neil brings in fascinating details from Sun-Times writers of many seminal Chicago tragedies in this post, noting that with the staff levels off those times, the paper could send many reporters and photographers to a single event. Since my site focuses on 1972, I looked specifically at the coverage of the '72 Illinois Central crash that killed 44 and injured over 300. The amount of talent brought to that single story is pretty astonishing, with four major dailies still operating at full staff levels, plus the Daily Defender's smaller staff. Here's the link to my coverage of the coverage for anybody looking for more Chicago press heroically covering tragedy:

  6. I remember OLA. We lived a few blocks away, wondering why kids were running through the neighborhood without jackets on in December, and then looked to the SW to see the plume of smoke.

    I attended kindergarten at Cameron (the nearby public school) and then was part of the first 1st-grade class in the new OLA building. Regular fire drills were, of course, part of the routine.

    And I listened in disbelief, and then horror, to my print-room radio at Douglas Film Industries, when Flight 191 went down at O'Hare.


  7. My mother never forgot the TV coverage of the 1950 Green Hornet disaster, which happened when I was not yet three. A teen-aged freelance photographer snapped a close-up of the incinerated bodies piled up at the rear doors of the streetcar...and it not only made the Chicago American, but Life magazine, and numerous publications around the world. Those were different times. I once showed it to my kid sister, when she was about six. It gave her nightmares. She turned 72 this month, and she still hasn't forgiven me for doing that.

    The young freelancer eventually became a full-time news photographer in Chicago, and he won an award for the haunting image he took at the OLA fire...the one of the firefighter carrying out a dead child...which was used for years as a fire prevention poster. I never saw the front page of the Sun-Times the next day. We got the Daily News. Dead kids at their desks, hands folded in prayer. This time, I was the one who had the nightmares. For weeks. Many of the victims were about my age. I now live near a school with the same name. Anyone who was a kid in Chicago in 1958 has never forgotten OLA. I know I never will.

    Never saw that Sun-Times front page on the day after the 1979 O'Hare crash (which was a Saturday), because there was not a single copy to be had anywhere on the North Side, or in the nearby suburbs as well. Every copy of the Tribune and the Sun-Times had been sold. Even the street boxes were empty.

    Those online graphics on the Sun-Times page are superb. Thanks muchly, Mr. S.

    1. The sad reason the kids in the OLA fire were at their desks praying was because the foolish nun teacher told them to do that instead of trying to get them out of there!

    2. Yes. That's true. I think she may have been the young novice from New Orleans who had not been a teacher for very long. She died with her pupils.

  8. A fine article, covering a lot of ground succinctly, with the recollections of journalists who'd covered the events adding fascinating perspective. The graphics are excellent, as noted.

    I was curious enough to figure out what that dramatic photo atop the blog was depicting that I looked it up. "Dante and Virgil in Hell" definitely works here, even if our host weren't a big Dante fan...


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