At fifteen stories high, the Winecoff Hotel was considered one of the first skyscrapers in Atlanta in 1913. It also claimed to be a fire proof building. Among those staying in the Winecoff on the night of December 7, 1946, were teenagers affiliated with Tri-Hi-Y, a Christian group, who had come to the capital city to participate in a mock legislature. Also in the hotel were families who had come to town to do their Christmas shopping and see movies, veterans returning from World War II, and at least one group of unruly men gathered to play poker for money.
Several features of the building belied the claim that it was fireproof. There were no fire escapes, no sprinkler system, no fire doors and no alarm system. The only stairway in the hotel was wrapped around the elevator in the center of the building and it immediately became unusable. The outer shell of the building was fireproof, but the interior of the Winecoff was decorated with wallpaper, and other decorations that definitely were flammable, and with a design that made escape through the hallways in such a fire impossible.
The 119 victims of the fire died mainly in three ways. Some slept through the beginning of the fire and suffocated from the smoke. Others jumped to the ground in hope of survival, only to die on impact. Still others tried to jump into the nets the firemen were holding, only to land off-center and strike their heads on the edge of the nets. Those who tried to escape using sheet ropes sometimes died and sometimes lived.
More of those killed were in rooms with shuttered windows. These included boys from Rome, Georgia who were in town for the mock legislature. Since escaping through windows was the only way to escape they died with no egress from the fire. The woman in this picture burned to death while waiting for help in a shuttered room.
As people jumped from their rooms, many struck wires, awnings and the marquee. Their bodies had to be retrieved after the fire. One jumper's life was saved because (as horrible as it sounds) her fall was cushioned by other bodies already on the ground.
The group of gamblers playing poker and other card games were in a suite on the third floor. A mattress in the hallway outside their suite that may have been set afire by a disgruntled gambler leaving the game is the most often stated cause of the fire although there are many questions how a mattress fire could have caused the inferno that resulted. The gamblers, along with some other guests, survived because their location allowed a relatively short jump to the roof of an adjacent building.
Hotel guests who opened their doors long enough to smell the fire said that the smoke smelled like burning gas or tires which would indicate that an accelerant other than just the mattress caused the fire. Those who believe that an accelerant was the cause said that the fire may have started at the base of the steps to the fourth floor. This provides the best explanation for why the stairway so quickly became a chimney of fire and smoke. This starting location was not near the mattress.
Firefighters valiantly fought to extinguish the fire and to rescue the trapped from their windows, but it was impossible to save everyone.Many bodies were burned beyond recognition and had to be identified by rings and other items found on the body.
The outer walls of the Winecoff did not burn (they were the fireproof part of the building) and the building was later used to house other businesses.
As a result of this fire, enhancements in the building and fire codes require hotels and other buildings to have improved methods of exit, safer interior finishes, fire alarms and sprinklers. The next time you are annoyed by a "no smoking allowed" room in a hotel where lighting a cigarette will set off an alarm remember that it is an important lesson from what happened to the Winecoff on that terrible December day.
Books used in this article:
The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire by Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin
The Bleak December is a fictionalized story of the fire by David R. Kelly that includes his rather convoluted theory of how and why the fire was set.
Websites used for this article:
My Firefighter Nation
The Winecoff Hotel (and Fire)
A Firefighter's Own Worst Enemy
A list of victims with their hometowns is available at Winecoff Hotel Fire Memorial.
A video remembrance of the victims from Bainbridge High Shool is available at The Winecoff Hotel Fire.
An eight minute documentary on the fire can be found at The Winecoff.Org