Monday, December 02, 2002 - 1:10 PM
This is in the Chicago Sun-times today. I have heard some stories about this tragedy but this is the first time I have read this much detail:
BY MAUREEN O'DONNELL STAFF REPORTER
The lives of many Chicago kids didn't extend beyond their alleys and L cars until the founding of the Royal Airs Drum & Bugle Corps in Humboldt Park 44 years ago.
Sie Lurye started the corps, and Rich Tarsitano taught the children music. They began competing throughout the country, and for the first time, those city kids saw cornfields and farms.
On Sunday, the Royal Airs gathered at Queen of Heaven Cemetery to salute the corps members who never grew up. Color guard captain Frances Guzaldo, bugler Roger Ramlow and flag-bearer Valerie Thoma died in the heart-crushing fire at Our Lady of the Angels School on Dec. 1, 1958, which killed 92 children and three nuns and changed school fire regulations nationwide.
"I was standing out in the front of the school the day of the fire, waiting for Frances to come out," said Jackie Lurye Borelli, 58, whose father founded the corps. "Her and I were going Christmas shopping."
But the inferno began.
"She came out and went back in to get her cousin," Borelli said, adding that Frances never made it out. "They found them both together."
About a third of the kids in Serge Uccetta's seventh-grade classroom perished.
"The door started rattling like there was wind in the hallway," Uccetta recalled. "Our nun said to open the door, and smoke was pouring in." The door was slammed shut, but "within just seconds, people could see flames licking over the doors."
"My personal hero would be the school janitor, Mr. Raymond,'' said Uccetta, now 56. James Raymond had placed a ladder up to the second-floor window of Uccetta's classroom. "I remember having to hang down from the windowsill to reach the ladder. There were kids behind me in pain, pushing to get out. It was awful. I got out and was not injured.
"For years, I got the adrenaline rush when I smelled smoke," he said. "I ended up being pallbearer for four or five kids that died."
The corps survived the fire, even though many of its members attended or were former students of Our Lady of the Angels, which was in the 3800 block of West Iowa until it shut down in 1999. Tarsitano "held together the band and consoled them during a tough time and told them they were safe," said his granddaughter Christie Tarsitano, 25, of Elmhurst.
Their rehearsal hall was the Illinois National Guard Northwest Armory, where many of the fire victims had laid in state. In 1965--eight years after their founding--they won every major title in the country for a drum corps.
"We went from 25 kids who never touched a bugle to three-time national champions," Uccetta said.
Financial troubles broke up the Royal Airs in 1968, but members gathered last year to perform at Lurye's induction into the Drum Corps Hall of Fame in Madison, Wis. They reunited, and there are now 227 members in the United States and Canada. They're performing again, and "we've knocked the socks off people," said corps director Borelli.
The corps played "Taps" Sunday at the shrine to Our Lady of the Angels at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, where many victims are buried, and repeated the tune at the grave of Tarsitano, their original music instructor.
Patricia Neri was only 1 when her sister Beverly Ann died in the fire.
"We haven't forgotten her," said Neri, who visited the cemetery with her sister Pam Pantaleo. "She was a part of our lives, and we bring our children here now."
The corps' average age is now 55. Many are gray-haired. Some have waistlines that strain against their blue jackets. Yet their voices gained power at the cemetery as they spontaneously began to sing their old theme:
"On the field we march so proudly,
With our heads held high,
Royal Airs we are beside you;
And for you we vie."