The St. John’s School fire was a deadly fire that occurred on the morning of October 28, 1915, at the St. John’s School on Chestnut Street in the downtown area of Peabody, Massachusetts. Twenty-one girls between the ages of 7 and 17 were burned or crushed to death while attempting to escape the fire.
More than 600 children were in the building when the fire began in the basement of the school building. There were no fire escapes on the outside of the building, but instead those inside were forced to use wide stairways at either end of the interior which led down to the front exit. Mother Superior Aldegon, who led the Sisters who taught in the Catholic school, sounded a fire alarm and began the routine fire drill procedure.
This procedure should have led to the children and teachers leaving the building through the stairways to and out of a rear exit. However, as smoke thickened and the fire came closer, they ran for the front door instead, and became jammed in the vestibule. The fire broke through to the vestibule from directly under the front entrance and the vestibule, now crowded with pupils, was enveloped in flames. The fire rapidly swept through the three-story brick and wooden building, fully engulfing it in less than five minutes.
With their exit blocked, many of the children escaped through first-floor windows or jumped from those on the second and third floors. Not all were able to escape, however; the bodies of the 21 victims were found after the fire subsided, huddled together and burned beyond recognition, on the inside of the school entrance. The Sisters of Notre Dame who taught at St. John’s aided the children trying to escape, some by dropping the students into coats and blankets being used as life nets. These actions were credited in saving many lives. Two of the nuns were injured, one suffering serious burns; however, none of the adults were killed.
As a result of this fire, Peabody became the first city to pass a law that said all doors (in public buildings and school) must push out.