I just wasn’t a normal teenager anymore. After I left the hospital, people avoided me in the street. They were repulsed by what they saw; some of them screamed. I still had thick purple scars and open wounds. I wondered why I was alive.
When Chicago’s most devastating school fire broke out on a chilly December morning in 1958, Michele McBride was 13. She recalls that she was fidgeting through eighth-grade math class at Our Lady of the Angels parochial school when suddenly a boy near her shouted an alarm. Soon heavy smoke was belching through the door, driving the frightened children to the second-floor windows. “I told myself, ‘There’s no reason to panic,’ ” Michele remembers. ” ‘The firemen will come.’ ”
But as the precious minutes passed, the ceiling started to collapse and a friend near her just ignited like “a straw doll” in the estimated 1,000° inferno. Michele leaped. She fell 25 feet and fractured her skull. Sixty-five percent of her slender body had already been horribly burned.
Ninety-two of her schoolmates and three nuns died. But Michele felt as much guilty as fortunate that she had survived. Hospitalized for nearly five months, she underwent six major skin grafts, actually looking forward to the surgery because then she received morphine. There was also psychological pain, for in misguided efforts to protect her, no one would tell her who among her school friends and teachers had died. “Not knowing made me even more fearful and apprehensive,” she says now.
Her despair endured long after she left the hospital—indeed, for nearly 20 years, during which she attempted suicide several times. In 1974 Michele began a cathartic project, deflecting her bitterness into researching and writing The Fire That Will Not Die. Her book became a best-seller in Chicago soon after it hit the stores this summer.
In prose more passionate than elegant, McBride catalogues the reasons for the tragedy: an obsolete, overcrowded school; an alarm system that was not tied in to the fire department; delay in phoning in the fire, and ladders too short to reach the upper floors. Despite official denials, McBride accuses the Chicago fire department of a “cover-up.” “When I did manage to locate one or two firemen who had been there,” she claims, “they told me they were lined up and told never to discuss it.”
The third daughter of a GM assembly line worker, Michele credits her supportive family for pulling her through. Her mother is deaf and, says Michele, “Having a parent with a handicap made me more determined to get well.” In 1963 she successfully sued the Chicago archdiocese, but says, “I’m embarrassed I settled for so little.” She did receive enough to give her a greater degree of independence—her own apartment, schooling in Chicago-area colleges and, eventually, psychological counseling. “Therapy was like growing a new skin,” she says. “I never thought I could do it.”
She now hopes to establish an organization called Phoenix to help other burn victims, particularly in overcoming the mental trauma. McBride is her own best example of what can be achieved. Her damaged circulation still forces her to wear heavy clothing to control body temperature even in warm weather. But she swims, drives and after years of practice can put on her scar-masking facial makeup in 10 minutes flat. With her steady beau, lawyer George Nichols, she prowls bookstores, takes in movies and drinks at their favorite pub. “Thank God,” says Michele, “I can now put some fun into my life.”