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PEABODY — On a beautiful October morning 90 years ago the school day at St. John the Baptist School began as usual with prayer, but in a matter of minutes the scene changed to one of panic and terror.
Fire sprung from the basement, engulfing the building and killing 21 girls, ages six to 18, recalled George Murphy, the last living survivor of the disaster.
A memorial garden was dedicated to the young victims of the tragedy Oct 23.
Murphy, 98, who was in third grade in 1915 recalled the school evacuation. He and most of the other boys left out of the back door, while the girls exited from the front door as was the custom of fire drills at the school. Nineteen of those who died were trapped inside of the building as the girls rushed toward the front door.
“They [the doors] didn’t have panic bars,”said Murphy, referring to the bars that allow doors to be pushed open from the inside.
“There was a crash at the front entrance on the first floor when Mary McCarthy, a young pupil, fainted in the mad rush for the school yard and a score of children toppled over her,”according to a newspaper account at the time.
Murphy and his five brothers and sisters were among almost 600 students who made it out of the building safely, he said.
The memorial garden, located at the entrance of the rebuilt school, features a statue of Jesus with a boy on one knee and His arm around a little girl, and is dedicated both to the victims of the fire and to those who saved lives that day.
Speaking at the memorial dedication, principal Maureen Kelleher said, “Today we remember the courage, selflessness, resiliency and faith of this parish and community. In the face of danger the students and faculty reached out in Christian concern for the safety of their fellow man. Their bravery and selfless acts reflected the values that inspire us all as the keepers of the legacy of St. John’s School.”
William Power, president of the Peabody Historical Society gave many examples of heroism on that day. Sister Superior Carmelita, SND, upon discovering the fire, sounded the alarm and went to the second floor to direct the children out of the building, he said.
The evacuation went smoothly until flames started shooting toward the children as the fire suddenly spread upstairs to every section of the school simultaneously because all of the stairways led to the center of the building, Power continued.
Sister Aldegon, SND, lowered her entire class, 25 students, out a window to safety as smoke and fire filled the room. Men who lived in the area came to help and caught children who jumped out the windows, he said.
Maurice Harris, a seventh grade student, helped a boy with a broken leg escape out of a window using the boy’s crutch to smash it open, he added.
The fire department rushed to the scene and doused the flames, he said.
Power said a later investigation determined that the shellac used in the building contributed to the deadly nature of the fire. The smoke from the wood and oil was poisonous and caused many of the children to die by suffocation.
The fire started in a basement closet, but the cause was never determined, he added.
The small caskets were stacked in the front pews at the funeral Mass the following Sunday, said Sister Eileen Burns, SND, at the dedication.
“There was no space to put them all,”added Sister Eileen, whose relative, Nellie Burns, 7, died in the fire.
The eulogy that day was delivered by Cardinal O’Connell.
“God gave you your little ones,”he told the parents of victims. “Who can read life’s mystery without divine confidence and hope? Life is a mystery. Faith alone can solve it. God will be nearer than ever to you, for they who suffer are always nearest to Him.”
The fire greatly affected the entire Massachusetts community of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, said Sister Eileen.
“I remember being surprised when I entered the community how often the sisters prayed to St. Lawrence for protection against fires,”she said. “It was, for many sisters, as if the fire had just happened.”
St. John’s pastor, Father John MacInnis, said that while the memorial garden will help the parish community to remember the students who died, it will also commemorate the compassion and support the community had for victims and their families.
“It’s so important not to forget the love as well as the tragedy and loss of life,”he said.
Bishop Francis Irwin, who blessed the memorial’s statue, said the amazing part of the story is the parish’s resiliency.
“The spirit of this parish never was broken. The parish came back to support, to console, to strengthen and to walk together into the future,”he said.
While the fire was a tragedy, God can bring good out of even the worst situations, said Michael Bonfanti, mayor of Peabody. In this case, the 21 deaths led to changes in statewide fire codes that would later require all doors to open outward, which saved many lives, he added.
“We learn through loss and grief that His plans are often not our own,”he said. “But there is a path from sorrow to joy.”