On the fifth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7 1946, Atlantans awoke to news of another tragedy. The Winecoff Hotel at Peachtree & Ellis in the heart of downtown had caught fire during the early morning hours. When the smoke cleared, 119 people were dead, including W.F. Winecoff original owner of the hotel. To this day the Winecoff fire remains the worst hotel fire in the United States from the perspective of loss of life.
The Atlanta Fire Department received a phone call alerting them to the fire at 3:42 A.M. The initial responders quickly realized the seriousness of the situation and a second alarm was issued minutes later. By 4:00 A.M. a general alarm was raised calling for all Atlanta fire fighters, on duty and off, to respond to the Winecoff. Pleas were also sent to surrounding communities for help and fire departments from Fort McPherson, East Point, College Park, Decatur, Avondale, Druid Hills, Hapeville, Marietta and the Naval Air Base rushed to scene.
The fire had begun on the third floor. It progressed so rapidly that by the time the fire department reached the hotel, guests on the upper floors were cut off with no chance of escape from the inside. Rescue operations were conducted from outside using life nets and a ladder bridge spanning the alley between the Winecoff and the Mortgage Guaranty building. Guests began to tie bed sheets together and string them from windows in an attempt to climb down to the fire ladders which, at 85 feet, were not tall enough to reach the upper floors. Eventually, as panic set in, people began to jump.
Georgia Tech student Arnold Hardy was returning from a dance when he heard the sirens. Taking a cab to the scene, he used his last flash bulb to capture the horrific fall of Daisy McCumber. His picture was picked up by the AP and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1947. Incredibly, Ms. McCumber survived the fall.
One of the most tragic stories of the fire was of the 40 high school students from across Georgia who were staying at the Winecoff. They were some of Georgia’s most talented students and were in Atlanta for a YMCA sponsored event. Of these 40 young men and women, 30 died that night.
As a result of the tragedy, a national convention on fire protection was held in 1947. Out of that meeting came much more stringent fire and building codes, eliminating such things as unprotected stair openings which had contributed to the quick spread of the fire at the Winecoff.
The building that was once the Winecoff Hotel still stands at the corner of Peachtree and Ellis and looks much the same as it did in the 1940s. Today it is the Ellis Hotel described as “Atlanta’s Premier Boutique Hotel.”
For additional information on this historic event, including interviews with Arnold Hardy and some survivors of the fire, watch this short segment produced by TBS:
An invaluable resource for this post was the book “Prompt to Action: Atlanta Fire Department 1860-1960” which was passed down to me from my grandparents.