Reflections on “Nearly 50 Years Later: The Chicago Fire that Killed Two Deaf Students”

Video description: Trudy Suggs, a white woman with brown shoulder-length hair, is wearing a black cardigan over a black shirt with green and white dots.  She is seated in a corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

Read the article here.

Earlier this month, my family and I went to the Great Wolf Lodge, a waterpark and hotel. That night, as I was about to go to bed, I realized that there was no accessible fire alarm in the room. I stood there for a second, wondering what I should do. My children were already out cold, so I didn’t want to wake them up and move them. My husband and I decided it would be okay since we had a balcony and sliding doors, and weren’t far up from the ground — we were on the third floor. But the irony of that experience didn’t escape me, because I was working on this article at that time.

This story was written based on firsthand accounts, interviews, and newspaper articles from 1970. My mother and stepfather both graduated from the Illinois School for the Deaf in 1970, so I grew up being told this story a thousand times. My stepdad didn’t go because he had been suspended from school, but he had grown up with almost every boy in the group who went to Chicago. My mother had attended school with many of them — namely Donald Zanger, who was from the same town as my mother. In fact, Donald’s sister Rosey was my mother’s best friend for many years. I grew up with Rosey almost as an aunt, and I remember always seeing a sadness in her eyes.  

When writing this story, I learned that the night before the fire, my mother and grandparents had stayed at the Zangers’ house until almost three in the morning playing cards. After only a few hours of sleep, my grandmother woke my mother up and made her get dressed. Mom didn’t understand why until they were in the car, when Grandmother broke the news of the fire and that Donald was one of the missing boys. It was later that day that the Zanger family learned Donald had indeed been fatally injured. Mom, who was as devastated as if Donald were her own brother, spent almost every minute at the Zanger household that week.

The newspaper articles printed on the days after the fire were also interesting to read. This was not the hotel’s first fire; another one had taken place two years and two days earlier, and also began on the ninth floor. The deaf boys had unknowingly been put on the service floor, which meant it was a high-traffic floor used by service personnel.

One article in the Chicago Sun Times reported that the hotel public relations director Alan Edelson said that ninth-floor occupants were informed of the fire by telephone and instructed to stay where they were. Obviously this didn’t work for the deaf boys. The words “deaf mute” and “handicapped” were repeatedly used. The language was very defective, portraying the deaf students as helpless, unintelligent, and pitiful. Times were different back then, indeed, but the challenges continue to this day.

I remember looking at the grainy photographs in the newspaper clippings when I was a little girl and being awed by the incredible difficulty of that experience. Even today, it’s hard for me to put together the Charles Bright I’ve known all of my life with the Charles Bright who fell from the ninth floor. You’d never know it by looking at him, because he’s such a cheerful person with a great sense of humor. He was always the person I ran to at community events when I was a child because he was just so much fun to talk with, and still is today.

As I began talking to the people featured in this story, and many others who I didn’t have the space to include here — many who I had grown up knowing — I was shocked at the details that emerged, details that never made it into the media: stories about the aftermath, stories about the survivors, and stories about how that made them hold onto their lives with so much more appreciation. As Dale Saline said, “Even today, many years later, that experience has made appreciate life, every minute, and I’ve cherished my time since then.”

This story has reminded me that each and every person really does have a story to tell.

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  1. Deborah Beranek says:

    Zeke Beranek is my father-in-law. He’s never shared this story with us- thank you so much for telling the story.

  2. Trudy Suggs says:

    Every person I spoke to for this story had nothing but high praise and admiration for Zeke. I look forward to meeting him in person soon when I’m in the area again.

  3. Judy Meats says:

    I was in Jacksonville tonight having dinner by myself and catching up on Facebook, when I saw the post! I began teaching at ISD after the Thanksgiving vacation 1969! I remember the fire well, but never knew so many of the details! I taught in the primary department so didn’t know the boys personally , except Freeman Harper, who’s mother had an important job in the Administration Building.

  4. Trudy Suggs says:

    Judy, thank you! I didn’t, either, until I talked to the people involved. Although I had heard about this story all of my life, it was only when I really sat to talk with my parents that I learned of how much this story had personally affected them, especially my mother.

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