ATLANTA — Tuesday marks 75 years since over 100 people lost their lives in what remains the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1946, a fire broke out around 3:30 a.m. at the Winecoff Hotel off Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. A total of 119 people died in the fire, including hotel founder W. Frank Winecoff.
Many of the guests staying at the hotel came to Atlanta for Christmas shopping, a youth conference and the premiere of “Song of the South” across the street, according to WSB Radio.
The fire started on the third floor and many guests didn’t know it was on fire until smoke filled their rooms.
On the 75th anniversary, Channel 2′s Berndt Peterson spoke with a survivor of the tragedy.
Richard Hamil said he will never forget three words he heard that night.
“The first thing she said to my dad was, ‘I’m gonna jump,’” he said.
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Hamil was only nine years old when he and his father were staying at the hotel to attend the youth assembly.
“Going to Atlanta from Rome in those days was a big deal,” Hamil said.
On the night of Dec. 7, 1946, Hamil said the fire woke his family up around 3:30 a.m. Hamil recalled the deafening roar and all the smoke creeping in.
“When we got into the hallway, it was like walking into a dark cave.”
Hamil and his father were staying on the 15th floor and ended up in another guest’s room. At the time, fire ladders reached only the seventh floor of the 15-story hotel.
As other people jumped to their deaths, help for the Hamils and the woman came from a building on the other side of a narrow alley.
“The superintendent of that building got the idea that he could take a ladder and go straight across from the top of the roof of that building to the 15th floor—and people could come across the ladder,” Hamil said. “My last memory is somebody from somewhere was saying ‘Grab the ladder. Reach for the ladder.’ I thought it came from the ground. I didn’t know I was 150 feet up in the air.”
Hamil, his father and the other guest survived. Four boys in the Hamil’s youth group did not.
Hamil remembers his father was afraid they would die, too.
“He said that. ‘I don’t think we’re gonna make it.’ I told him, yes we were,” Hamil said.
Seventy-five years later, the Winecoff Hotel remains the deadliest in U.S. history. In wake of the tragedy, many building and fire codes were changed not only in Georgia but across the country. The hotel had lacked fire escapes, sprinkler system and had an open stairway that let the fire spread quickly.
One of the most unforgettable images was captured by a Georgia Tech student Arnold Hardy. According to the Georgia Historical Society, Hardy snapped a photo of a woman jumping from the 11th floor. The woman survived. Hardy won a Pulitzer Prize.
The hotel was eventually rebuilt and it is the Ellis Hotel today.
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