With only five flashbulbs, Georgia Tech student Arnold Hardy used his last one to capture this photo of a woman leaping from the Winecoff Hotel fire. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
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"The Winecoff Fire - The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire by Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin"
54 Years Ago 119 Died in America's Deadliest Hotel Fire
TIMOTHY R. SZYMANSKI
Was it an accident or was it arson? 54 years the question is still not answered. The Winecoff Hotel fire, a fire that killed 119 of 280 people who were staying in the hotel at the time of the fire, is still listed as the deadliest hotel fire in North America.
The fire occurred at approximately 3:00AM on December 7, 1946. The Winecoff Hotel is located on the corner of Peachtree Street and Ellis Street in the heart of downtown Atlanta. At fifteen stories, the Winecoff was Atlanta's tallest hotel. It was advertised as a "fireproof" hotel, which was constructed of brick. It had a central-spiral staircase and an elevator that was under the control of an operator
Photo By Timothy Szymanski
A marker stands as a reminder of the devastating
fire that tore through the Winecoof Hotel killing 119 people.
Many of the guests in the hotel that night were teenagers who went to Atlanta for the Youth Assembly at the Capitol. They were from high schools and other organizations from all across Georgia to take part in a mock legislature, and the "delegates" were staying in many of Atlanta's downtown hotels.
The fire is believed to have started on the third floor. At first, it was believed to be an accidental fire, possibly due to careless smoking. But in 1995, the sons of two reporters who were covering the fire for an Atlanta newspaper, published a book, which has a different theory about the fire.
In the book, The Winecoff Fire - The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire by Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin, the possibility of arson is introduced. After extensive research by the two men, a suspected is named. Both of the men researched the fire for over ten years. It makes for excellent reading about one of the most historic fires in the United States.
For over two and a half hours, fire departments from all across northern Georgia fought the blaze. A number of people died in the fire, as well as many people who jumped to their deaths. At the time of the fire, the building lacked fire escapes, fire doors or automatic fire sprinklers.
Photo By Timothy Szymanski
A postcard from the dedication ceremony of
the historical marker placed at the corner Peachtree and Ellis
Streets on December 4, 1994.
One of the teenagers that survived the Winecoff fire was Dorothy Cox, who jumped to Peachtree Street and broke a significant number of bones and suffered serious injuries. Nearly 47 years later, her daughter Janet Cox set out on a mission to place a State Historical Marker at the site, next to the building, which still stands today. After the Marker was approved a committee of consisting of the authors, Sam Hayes and Allen Goodwin, Janet Cox, the Atlanta Fire Department along with the Metropolitan Fire Association, set up a special dedication ceremony on December 4, 1994 at the Marker site. What made the ceremony significant was a number of the survivors and firefighters that were there on December 7, 1946, attended the ceremony. It was the first time in 48 years that some of the survivors got to meet the firefighters that responded to the fire. One of the engines that actually responded to the incident was also parked in front of the building during the ceremony. It was the first time since the fire, that the city officially thanked the firefighters for responding to the blaze.
If you visit Atlanta, the marker is located on a small patch of grass next to the Winecoff Hotel building on the corner of Peachtree Street and Ellis Street, just two blocks north of Fire Station 4, one of the busiest fire stations in Atlanta.
As a result of the fire, within days fire codes were upgraded across the country. In Georgia alone, the 1948 Building Exits Code was adopted by the Georgia State Legislature to ensure that people could escape buildings in the event of a fire.
The Winecoff Hotel Fire Marker is dedicated to the victims, the survivors and the firefighters who fought the Winecoff Hotel fire.
This article courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle Online
Our appreciation to them for allowing us to preserve this article on our site.
Today marks 50th anniversary of blaze which killed 119 at Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta
By Brad Schrade
Richard Muns of Augusta was just a kid when Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel burned 50 years ago this morning, killing 119 people in America's deadliest hotel fire.
Images of that horrible event lived on, however, through his father and uncle, who survived the pre-dawn blaze by shimmying down the 15-story building on bed sheets.
Mr. Muns, now 59, recalls the reluctant accounts that his father, Robert, and uncle, Eves, gave of the blaze, which occurred when the two Augusta plumbers - now deceased - were in Atlanta overnight on business.
They woke up to the sirens. They heard the screams, an explosion and remember a doomed little girl who struck them as she fell several stories to her death on the street below.
``I think back and am thankful he was able to get out,'' said Mr. Muns. ``He was able to live and we were able to share some things in life.''
The Winecoff, built in 1913, was billed as ``absolutely fireproof'' but lacked such safety features as a fire escape or fire doors. The 150-room hotel was filled to capacity when the pre-dawn fire erupted.
Today, the Winecoff is a decaying, vacant building at the downtown corner of Peachtree and Ellis streets. But around 3:40 a.m. a half-century ago it woke up a city with flames and the sirens that followed.
Many died from smoke inhalation, others fell or were burned. About 160 guests escaped, but one of Atlanta's tallest buildings at the time was a firetrap. There were no fire escapes or sprinklers. And few safety codes.
At the time, it was the worst hotel fire in world history. News of the fire made front pages across the country and was the top story on the radio airwaves.
The euphoria of winning the war was still fresh and the fire occurred on the fifth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Winecoff disaster had a lasting effect because it spawned better fire codes and safer buildings, said Allen Goodwin, co-author, with Sam Heys, of the 1993 book, The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire.
But the more ominous question of how the blaze started remained a public mystery for years after the blaze, Mr. Goodwin said. The official version was that it began on the third floor when a cigarette smoldered in a mattress.
Mr. Goodwin said the overwhelming evidence points to arson, but that possibility was never investigated thoroughly by authorities.
Two of the hotel victims were prominent Thomson citizens, Peter Knox Sr., and his wife Gertrude. They had gone to the Atlanta for a doctor's appointment. He was 78; she was 68.
It was a seemingly trivial stroke of bad luck that placed them at the Winecoff. The couple's reservations at another hotel fell through and they booked a room in the doomed hotel at the last minute.
Mr. Knox - a former Thomson city councilman - and his wife suffocated in Room 1218. Another Thomson citizen, Robert Fluker, 41, was staying at the hotel on separate business and died in the fire.
The Knox's daughter-in-law, Ruth Knox, recalls how news of the fire rocked the small town.
``It was almost like they were heading up to Atlanta on a second honeymoon,'' she said. ``They were smiling. What happened was just terrible. The whole town was in shock.'' In the half-century since, the Knox family has rarely discussed the fire, she said.
Mrs. Knox won't be going to the ceremony scheduled today in Atlanta to honor those whose lives the fire changed. But she recalls walking by the old structure a few years back - and remembers the memories the building evoked.
``It was an eerie feeling to stand on that corner and look up at the building,'' Mrs. Knox said. ``What happened there was so terrible.''
This article courtesy
of GA Tech
Georgia Tech student was the first photographer at the scene of Atlanta's worst hotel fire
By Sam Heys
With only five flashbulbs, Georgia Tech student Arnold Hardy used his last one to capture this photo of a woman leaping from the Winecoff Hotel fire. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
Arnold Hardy was a 26-year-old graduate student at Georgia Tech the night he heard the sirens roaring downtown from all directions. It was 1946, and he was living upstairs in a rooming house at West Peachtree and North Avenue, within walking distance of Tech, where he was working in both the research lab and physics department.
Hardy was still up at 4 o'clock on the morning of Dec. 7. After taking his date home in Buckhead, he had waited an hour for a trolley back to town. He had just taken his shoes off when he heard the sirens. An amateur photographer, he hurriedly called the fire department.
"Press photographer. Where's the fire?" he asked
Hardy called a taxi. The cab picked him up and raced toward the corner of Peachtree and Ellis. With his prized Speed Graphic camera and five flashbulbs in his pocket, Hardy sprinted the final blocks.
He was the first photographer there.
The windows of the 15-story Winecoff Hotel were backlit by orange flames. Guests--jumping out of panic or falling from makeshift ropes of bedsheets as they tried to escape the terrible smoke--were landing and dying on Peachtree Street. Amid the pandemonium and a cacophony of sirens, Hardy went to work. He took a shot that spanned the front of the building and the faces of the doomed in the windows--the mutely pleading, hopeless faces.
When he was down to his final flashbulb--one had exploded in the cold night air--Hardy decided to try for a picture of a falling or jumping guest. When his viewfinder found a dark-haired woman falling midair at the third floor, her skirt billowing, he snapped the shutter open for 1/400th of a second.
With his photography completed, Hardy heard a fireman and policeman at a drugstore across the street discussing calling the store owner so they could obtain medical supplies. He told them to break the door open. When they said they wouldn't he kicked it open himself. He was quickly arrested.
As the Red Cross moved into the store to set up a first-aid station and make sandwiches and coffee for the firemen, Hardy was led off to jail. Upon being released on his own recognizance, he headed for the darkroom at the Tech research search lab. He developed his film and struck out for the Associated Press office downtown.
The AP offered him $150 for exclusive rights to his pictures. He said he wanted $300--and got it. His final photograph--the one of the jumping woman--would be reprinted around the world the following day, and be on magazine covers for weeks. The fire had killed 119 people and drawn international coverage as the worst hotel fire in the history of the world. A few months later, Hardy became the first amateur photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The AP gave Hardy a $200 bonus the day after the fire, but he has never received another cent for its frequent use. With the 47th anniversary of the Winecoff fire approaching, Hardy's famous photograph is back in the spotlight. It appears on the cover of The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America 's Deadliest Hotel Fire.
The book reports for the first time that the fire was set by an arsonist. It also identifies the "jumping lady" for the first time. She was Daisy McCumber, a 41-year-old Atlanta secretary who--contrary to countless captions--survived the 11-story jump. She broke both legs, her back, and her pelvis. She underwent seven operations rations in 10 years and lost a leg, but then worked until retirement. She died last year in Jacksonville Fla., having never admitted even to family that she was the woman in Hardy's photo.
The book also tells the dramatic story of James D. "Jimmy" Cahill, IM '48, who became one of the fire's heroes. Cahill, now retired from an academic career in Charlotte, N.C., had returned from the service and was staying at the hotel while applying to re-enter Georgia Tech. After escaping from the front side of the hotel, he raced around to the back to rescue his mother.
Cahill entered an adjacent building and stretched a board across a 10-foot alley to his mother's sixth-floor room. He crawled across the board and brought his mother to safety. Firemen quickly followed his lead and, with Cahill's help, rescued many guests who had no other escape from the backside of the hotel.
Hardy, a mechanical engineer, retired earlier this year, and sold Hardy Manufacturing Co. of Decatur, builder of medical X-ray equipment to his son. He retired from amateur photography decades earlier, shortly after realizing his photos would always be measured against his Pulitzer Prize winner. Hardy's goal that night had been to capture the futility of the whole scene before him. "It upset me so much that of all those trucks--there there were about 18 in the front of the building--I saw only two nets," he said. "I thought to myself, 'I'd love to take a picture that would just stir up the public to where they would do something about this and equip every truck in the city with a net.'"
Hardy's horrifying photo accomplished much more.
The Winecoff did not have fire escapes, fire doors, or sprinklers, yet had called itself fireproof. Quickly, fire codes changed nationwide. The Winecoff became a watershed event in the history of fire safety. The 119 did not die in vain--their deaths made hotels safer for Americans then and now. And the work Hardy did one night as a 26-year-old graduate student was one of the main reasons.
The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest
Hotel Fire, by Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin (Longstreet Press,
Sky of Fire
Ed Kiker Williams was looking forward to the trip to Atlanta -- not for the Christmas shopping, but for the drive itself.
"We didn't see too many new cars in Cordele in 1946," says Williams, "and my aunt had just bought a new Buick. It was a big thrill for me because I was going to be able to drive it to Atlanta."
Williams' aunt, Dorothy Smith, lived in nearby Fitzgerald. She had planned a shopping excursion to the capitol city with her sister, Boisclair Williams. She arrived in Cordele on Friday morning, Dec. 6, 1946, along with her children Fred, Dotsy and Mary. Ed, 17, and his sister Clair brought the total to seven travelers headed north on Highway 41 toward Perry.
"My sister wanted to see the movie Song of the South," recalls Williams, who still lives in Cordele. "I had been to Atlanta once or twice; it was a big city and I was a country boy. There were more people downtown than there are now, and we were right down where it was busy."
Reid and Cary Horne also planned to stay in Atlanta that night. The Hornes were Williams' cousins and also lived in Cordele, but were unaware of the Smiths' and Williams' presence in the city, even when they all checked into the same hotel.
Their parallel course would end there, however, for they would soon meet different fates at that hotel. This Saturday, Dec. 7, marks the 50-year anniversary of the Winecoff Hotel fire, which claimed 119 lives and is still considered the deadliest hotel fire in the nation's history.
The 15-floor Winecoff was a striking edifice, heralded in a 1913 advertisement as "Atlanta's Newest and Finest." Even 33 years later, the city's tallest hotel easily stood out among surrounding downtown buildings -- and not just because of its height. The hotel was encased in a brick shell, which allowed the owners to advertise the building as "fireproof."
The Winecoff had no sprinklers -- or fire escapes. Building codes in effect when the hotel was built required fire escapes only on buildings whose base measured 5,000 square feet or more; the lot at the corner of Peachtree and Ellis streets where the Winecoff stands is just shy of that figure.
The city revised the codes in 1943, following a rash of downtown fires in the '30s. All buildings -- including those like the Winecoff, which were already standing -- were to have sprinklers and escape stairwells. The city attorney, however, decided against making the codes retroactive for existing structures. (Even in the wake of the Winecoff inferno, business-friendly Atlanta policymakers would resist forcing expensive renovations on downtown landlords.)
In the aftermath of World War II, Atlanta was a city on the edge of great change and prosperity. Soldiers returning from Europe and the Pacific flooded the city of 300,000 and, some years before the booming expansion of the metro area's sprawling suburbs, demand for living space downtown was high.
The Winecoff had no vacancies on Dec. 6, 1946. Many of the rooms were occupied by discharged veterans or by permanent or semi-permanent residents. Among them were William Fleming Winecoff, the hotel's builder, and his wife, Grace.
Winecoff, 76, had come to Atlanta before the turn of the century, and had played a part in the development of the Ansley Park area. The couple had lived rent-free on the 10th floor for 30 years, enjoying the view from a hotel that boasted "every room an outside room" -- the same rooms from which scores of people would leap or fall to their deaths.
Winecoff would be among the 119 fatalities when the sun rose on Saturday morning.
"Reid opened the hall door and it was all we could do to close it again," says Horne. "They told us later that the temperature outside our door was several thousand degrees. We started running water in the lavatory, wetting blankets and stuffing them under the door."
The room next to them was in worse shape. "That room must have been a smokestack," she recalls. "We put our hands on the wall between the rooms, and it was just as hot as it could be."
Reid Horne looked out the window overlooking Peachtree Street again, northward toward Davison's, where Macy's is now. Because of the wind, there was less smoke enveloping that end of the building. Horne also saw, just below the windows on the 15th floor, an 8-inch ledge running the length of the building.
Cary Horne remembers their escape. "There was a man in the room below us, and he grabbed my ankles while Reid held my hands," letting her down the side of the building. "My husband was a big man -- 6 foot 3 -- and when he came down he had to hold on to the window and the bricks, because the other man could not have held him if he had lost his grip."
Once in the room, where they discovered burn holes in their clothes from the sparks rising through the night air, they went straight back out the window to the ledge. Clinging to the stuccoed building about 100 feet above the street, they inched their way to the northeast corner and climbed back inside.
On the other side of the Winecoff, a short, 10-foot-wide alley runs between the building and its neighbor, the Mortgage Guarantee Building (now called the Carnegie Building), whose roof was just below the Winecoff's 15th floor. This view greeted Ed Williams and his mother and sister from the windows of room 1520.
"Mother woke up and said she thought someone had thrown a smoke bomb. We opened the door, and smoke just boiled in the room. We closed the door and the transom, but there was so much smoke that pretty soon we couldn't see the lights." Boisclair Williams called out to her sister, down the hall in 1530, "Stay in your room!"
The Williamses went to the double windows seeking fresh air. Ed Williams recalls, "After a while there was no more talking. Then I realized that neither my mother nor my sister were there." Boisclair and Clair had passed out from the smoke. "I felt around for them and got them back in the window. We were there for a long time, maybe 45 minutes or an hour."
He was soon driven to climb out the window and sit on the sill. "I held on to that window for I don't know how long," before falling. The next thing he remembers is a voice saying, "A boy just hit this ladder."
Williams had fallen directly onto a ladder stretched from the roof next door. He bounced once and landed on it again, suffering only a broken heel and a split scalp.
By the time he was carried to the street, his mother, sister, aunt and cousins were dead.
The Hornes, meanwhile, had continued their odyssey, climbing back up to the 16th floor on a sheet rope. "There were a lot of sheets in that room," recalls Cary Horne. "The rope must have gone all the way to the sixth or seventh floor." They decided to descend once again, hoping to reach the rescue ladders whose maximum length was 85 feet.
Another member of the party in the corner room, Gladys Mitchell, went first, followed by Cary Horne. They had made it to the 12th floor, each one alternating on the rope, when a young girl named Anne Smith climbed out the top window. Horne, resting while Mitchell was on the rope, looked up in time to see her fall.
"It seemed like she barely touched the sheets. She hit my left hand and then knocked the other woman off the rope."
The impact of Anne Smith's body on the pavement below was audible to Reid Horne on the Winecoff's top level. Gladys Mitchell's arm became entangled in a cable supporting the hotel's marquee; the heavy coat she wore saved her life, its bulk keeping the cable from tearing off her arm.
Once the exhausted remaining members of the corner room retrieved Cary Horne from her perch below, they had to wait to be rescued. It was 6:30 a.m., half an hour after the flames were finally extinguished, before firemen reached them and led them down the dark, soaked staircase to the sidewalk.
In their 1993 book The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire, Sam Heys and Allen Goodwin point the finger at Roy McCullough, a career criminal who had likely played a part in a shady poker game in the hotel the night of the fire. Although questioned about his activities that night, McCullough was not charged in the blaze and died in 1964 while serving a life sentence for other crimes.
In 1993, several living survivors of the fire and families of several more were reunited in Atlanta. Ed Williams was approached by a man who said, "I've been wanting to see you. You probably saved my life." This was probably Richard Hamil, who was 9 at the time and staying with his father in the hotel. They were rescued from room 1522, next door to the Williamses. The firemen who liberated them had gone, at Williams' request, to try to save his mother and sister.
"There were only five or six survivors at the reunion," says Williams. "Mostly it was the families of survivors. A lot of people didn't feel like talking about the fire for many years." Williams himself has been willing to speak of the fire only in the last two decades.
History claimed the story of that night in other ways, as well. The building itself went through a series of owners, becoming the Peachtree on Peachtree Hotel in the 1950s, then a retirement home in 1967. By the '80s, it was all but abandoned, its demolition planned. But financing for the project fell through, and the Winecoff, now dilapidated, was auctioned in 1990.
During the summer of 1996, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the building was being purchased, to be renovated for residential and commercial use. Calls placed to both the real estate agent and mortgage company involved in the sale went unreturned, and there is no sign of new construction at 174-178 Peachtree Street.
The Winecoff's tragic history is now all but forgotten. The alley is full of trash and fenced with barbed wire, and the fire escape -- belatedly added to the building's south face in the '50s -- is rusting away. So tall for its time, the old hotel now seems lost in a downtown of giants.
Just a few minutes away, as one looks back
toward the city from the I-75/85 connector, an effort to pick
out the Winecoff is futile. It has already disappeared.
Information on the Winecoff Hotel