September 20, 2023
Angels Too Soon: The School Fire of ’58, premieres Friday, September 22 at 8:00 pm on WTTW and streaming on the PBS app and at wttw.com/chicagostories.
On December 1, 1958, a fire swept through Our Lady of the Angels, a Catholic school in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. The fire was devastating, killing 92 children and three nuns. “There wasn’t a street that didn’t lose a kid,” says Serge Uccetta in Angels Too Soon: The School Fire of ’58, which is the next Chicago Stories documentary, premiering Friday, September 22. It was a traumatic event that took an emotional toll on the children and their families, but as the documentary explores, their pain was rarely discussed openly at the time.
Carlos Lozano, who is interviewed in the documentary, was 10 years old when the fire broke out. He was in classroom 212, and suffered injuries after falling from the second floor window. It took him decades to discuss what he experienced. His daughter, Bianca Lozano, worked as the associate producer for the documentary and approached him to see if he would be interested in being interviewed. He was, and it was an emotional experience for both of them, but one that Carlos says he’s ultimately grateful for. WTTW spoke to Bianca and Carlos about what it was like to go through this process together.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bianca, can you tell me how you first got involved with the project, knowing your family connection to the story?
Bianca: I saw [Chicago Stories executive producer] Anna Gardner put out topics that they were hoping to dig into for the next season. I was working on [The Boss and the Bulldozer] originally. And once I got that email and saw that the school fire was on that list, I immediately emailed her back and told her of my connection. I said, “Hey, if this gets greenlit, I would love the opportunity to work on this episode.” Once it got greenlit, she reached out to me and said, “Hey, this is going to happen if you want to be a part of it.”
How did you approach your dad about being in the documentary?
Bianca: I waited a while because this was all coming from me. I didn't want to string him along emotionally until I knew it was a for-sure thing. Once I was officially working on the episode, I reached out to him and just kind of kept it very general at first … I circled around it. I don't think I was very direct because I didn't know how he felt about it. But then I finally asked him, “Are you willing to talk on camera?” And luckily he was.
Carlos, how did all of this feel from your perspective? How did you feel when Bianca approached you?
Carlos: I think my initial reaction was, “Well, okay,” not really thinking deeply about it. Then Bianca did a [pre-interview], a very formal interview over the phone, it lasted, an hour – right Bianca?
Bianca: Yeah, a little longer than an hour.
Carlos: She kind of worked her way into it. And that helped me move into it because, again, it's something that I really don't think about much. I mean, it was 65 years ago. It’s something that I really rarely talked about. … [Bianca] handled everything very, very well, and she asked me some pretty deep questions. I think it helped me get into it. And then it was no longer my daughter that was interviewing. It was an interview, and the kind of questions she was asking me really got me into the subject again, because it's hard. It's something that's not easily opened up to.
Bianca, talk about the experience of sitting in on the taped interview. Once you get in there with the actual cameras on your dad, that can change the dynamic a bit.
Bianca: I will say the good thing for me is I did the pre-interview. I mean, I was just finding out all this information from my dad on the interview call with him. Before that, we never discussed the fire. I never knew what he really went through. Growing up, I knew that he was in this big fire. I knew it was a major thing. But because we didn't discuss it at home, because it wasn't something he wanted to talk about, I didn't know the details. I didn't know how tragic and scary all that was for him until I did the pre-interview. So, luckily that helped set the tone for me. But come interview day, I was bawling like a baby during his interview because, again … knowing that he went through that and knowing that he's been living with that all the time. It was very hard to hear and to hear him talk about it. In his interview, he struggles a little bit when it comes to talking about that exact moment in his classroom. And so it was hard for me, to be honest.
Carlos, what was it like to see Bianca at work doing her job? Talk about what it was like telling your story on camera and what was going through your head.
Carlos: Watching Bianca work, I’m very proud of her … For the interview itself, [Peter Marks, the show’s producer] was also a very good interviewer. He worked his way to the meat of the experience. So going through this interview again, it's hard, and I don't start to feel it until I get into it. The good thing is that talking about it is cathartic because of the pent up emotion. It’s kind of locked away. But it was, for me, a necessary experience. It was something Bianca pointed out to me that I needed to go through. The day before, Bianca and Elan [Carlos’ son] sat down, and we had to deal with a number of things that had been pending for a long time. That happened the day before the interview, and that helped me work through a lot of things.
Bianca, you mentioned before our discussion today that this experience impacted you more than you could have imagined. In what way?
Bianca: It has been very emotional for both of us. I had a hard time connecting with my dad … And for me, I was ignorant somewhat. “You're talking about something that happened so long ago.” Come week one of doing research for this episode, I was tasked with cold-calling all of these survivors. We're talking about people who have gone through the same experience as my dad and are around the same age as him. I realized right away that there was truth to what my dad was saying. In those initial phone calls with so many of these survivors, they told me, like right off the bat, “I cannot go there. That was a long time ago. I don't want to go there. I don't want to talk about it. It's too hard.” And we had others who would open up to us, and then once they left the initial conversation, they would apologize and say, “You know what? I'm sorry. It's too much for me.” There's so many emotions that come up. This experience really did help me understand my dad's trauma.
Unfortunately for him and all those others that went through the same experience, [Peter Marks and I] were told time and time again that they were told that they couldn't talk about what they went through. They were in a fire, and the next day, life went back to normal ... My dad was only ten years old. How a child could go through something like that and not have the proper help or not ever not able to heal properly? That just opened conversations between me and my dad and my brother. That also helped us get to deeper topics and have a better understanding of each other.
Carlos: I think it also helped me realize the pain that Bianca and Elan had gone through over the years … I was finally able to hear the pain. I didn't hear it before. I think it kind of allowed me to look at things a little differently. Now I'm able to more freely talk with them … I call more often and talk to Bianca and talk with the girls [Bianca's three daughters] and my son. Our family seems to be clicking more now. [I talk to Elan about] his job as a firefighter. He’s working as an instructor at the [fire] academy now, and I was an instructor at the Chicago Police Academy for six years, so we have something in common, and it’s been nice to have these discussions.
You’ve both mentioned this idea of ‘talking about it’ – talking about something painful from the past. The documentary goes into that some, too. What value do you all see in talking about something that is so difficult?
Bianca: He held a lot of things in through the years with the father-daughter, parent relationship. One of the things he said to us to the night before [the interview] was that he didn't think people wanted to hear how he felt. He didn't think people wanted to hear what he went through. But he kept all these things inside, which was so hard for me to hear because it's like, that's all I've been wanting to hear. I want you to share that with me so I can better understand you and so that we can open conversations so that it can bring us closer. As hard as the subject of this project was, I do think this experience has brought us closer.
Carlos: I always had a message in my head. I grew up in the fifties, and I was a Mexican American kid. Our Lady of the Angels was primarily Italian American, so I stood out by the color of my skin. Right away, I was kind of shunned. So it was like, “OK. Nobody wants to be my friend.” … That's just how I went through my life.
So I ended up having that message in my head that, “Nobody cares about me, not even my kids.” And so it was self-perpetuating. Well, what did that have to do with the fire? It was a trauma that I suffered. That kept me closed off, and I wouldn't think anyone is interested in what I was thinking … This whole experience now helped me deal with that and open up, as painful and as uncomfortable as it is, I could see things differently. I could see that Bianca and Elan cared about me, and the girls, too. I’m really grateful for the experience.
Bianca: When we were reaching out to survivors, a lot of them had voiced how this is an event that not a lot of people know about or still talk about. And it was a huge event. It changed fire safety codes and how the schools were built after that.
We all know a family member that lost someone and has had a hard time. Their story is worth telling and is worth knowing. This fire was devastating to the city, to the neighborhood, to the kids, to those families. I just hope it opens up conversations.