As December approaches, many make the transition from Thanksgiving dinners and Black Friday shopping to preparing for the Christmas holiday. But Dina Laskowski of Jamestown is swarmed with a different set of emotions when November ends; Laskowski uses the holiday season to "take time to remember the people who lost their lives."
"You never really forget," Laskowski said. "Things happen for a reason, and there's a reason and a purpose for everybody's life. I just remember thinking, 'Why me Lord, why me?'"
On Dec. 1, 1958, when Laskowski was 9 years old, a fire broke out in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels, a Catholic school in Chicago. According to The Chicago Tribune, three nuns and 92 of the 1,600 students enrolled at the school died due to the fire.
"My mother didn't want me to go to school that day, but I was the kind of kid that wanted to go to school," Laskowski said. "She wanted to go shopping to get some slacks because it was cold outside. It was Chicago, it gets cold.
"I could have been at home and avoided all of this if I would have just listened to my mother," Laskowski said.
The building was unprepared for a fire despite recently passing a fire department safety inspection, according to a report published by the Illinois Fire Service Institute Library. The report said the school had no fire sprinklers, no smoke or fire detectors and only one fire escape.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, classroom ceilings were finished with combustible cellulose fiber acoustical tiles and wood was found throughout the school, including doors, door frames and furniture. NFPA reported that at 2:25 p.m. that day, two students told a teacher they smelled smoke in the basement boiler room. It was later determined that the fire was started by combustible material in the basement of the school.
The Illinois Fire Service Institute said 240 students and teachers were trapped on the second floor of the building.
Laskowski said smoke began to pile into her second-floor classroom, room 210, the only fourth-grade classroom on the second floor. The room had a total of 56 students, and olafire.com, a website dedicated to those lost in the fire, reported 29 students in the room survived while 27 children and the classroom's nun did not.
"People were trying to get out. When it happened there were people reporting that nuns just told us to sit and pray while the fire came in but that wasn't my experience," Laskowski said. "There was a lot of people that just stayed in and died. But I was going to get out."
As thick smoke began to pile in, Laskowski said she and other students were faced with the decision of jumping from the second-story window or staying in the room as it continued to fill with smoke.
"You're not really thinking about it you're just doing it," Laskowski said. "It's a personality thing. It's a human nature thing. Flight or fight. It was a flight mode. You gotta get out, you gotta get out."
Laskowski said the fire department originally responded to the wrong location, costing the rescue precious time and causing the department to be unprepared for the tall windows on the second story of the building.
"They brought ladders that were too short, they didn't reach the classrooms," Laskowski said.
Laskowski said she made the decision to jump, but struggled to reach the windowsill, because it was as tall as her shoulders.
"Through the grace of God, somebody must have lifted me up to the window," Laskowski said. "We were all breathing a heavy black smoke by then."
Laskowski said she jumped from the window blindly, not knowing what was going to stop her fall.
"I was lucky that I landed in the (firemen's) net," Laskowski said. "You just jump not knowing what's below you."
Despite surviving the fire, Laskowski didn't walk away unscathed. Laskowski said she suffered third-degree burns on her legs and buttocks and was also crushed by 10 students jumping on top of her and into the net.
Laskowski said she spent 23 days in the hospital.
"Adding insult to injury, I got scarlet fever in the hospital," Laskowski said. "I was in the isolation unit for two weeks."
After being discharged from the hospital, Laskowski said she had to learn how to walk again. This didn't stop her from continuing her education, as she had tutors come to her home so she could continue schooling.
"Time heals all wounds. The times have truly changed, there's more treatments and more pain medication now," Laskowski said. "When I had my bandages changed, we didn't have pain medication. You suffered. You had lots of pain.
"We'd have bets with kids in the hospital of who would cry the most. You didn't have anything to alleviate the pain," Laskowski said.
Sunday, Dec. 1, will mark 61 years since Laskowski made the decision to jump through the school's window to safety.
"We were the worst classroom in terms of death. It's through the grace of God that I'm here," Laskowski said. "Sometimes you think 'how does your life go?' I survived a very tragic situation so I must be here for a reason."
Laskowski moved to Jamestown in 1991 when her husband took a teaching job at the University of Jamestown. Laskowski obtained her own teaching position at the university shortly after and received the North Dakota State Literacy Award at the North Dakota Reading Association Spring Conference in April of 2018 before retiring this year.
"You never really forget what happened," Laskowski said. "I go into a building or a hotel and I don't like being on the upper floor. I always have to sleep in the bed closest to the door."
Laskowski said she still remains in contact with some of her classmates who also experienced the fire.
"We've gotten together over the years and it is a special class of people," Laskowski said. "They are survivors."
According to olafire.com, only one other room suffered such a high death toll: room 212, also losing 28 students, the room right next door to Laskowski's classroom. The website is partly based on the book, "To Sleep with the Angels", written by former Chicago journalists David Cowan and John Kuenster which details the events of the 1958 fire.
"Because we were younger you'd think we'd get out easier, but since we were younger that was the reason we didn't," Laskowski said.
One year after the fire, NFPA conducted a survey that showed 68% of all U.S. communities had made physical improvements of some kind toward school safety.