1946 Atlanta hotel fire echoed in Oakland warehouse disaster
The deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history killed 119 people 70 years ago this week and led to new and lasting fire safety standards for hotels and other public buildings
By Jeff Martin
ATLANTA — The cries of trapped hotel guests screaming in agony are still seared into Richard Hamil's memory, seven decades after the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta.
As a 9-year-old boy, he and his father were blinded in thick smoke, stumbling from their 15th-floor room into the hallway in "absolute chaos," then into a female guest's room, Hamil recalls.
"She was preparing to jump, but Daddy told her, 'No, not until we have to, we won't do that," he said.
The deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history killed 119 people 70 years ago this week and led to new and lasting fire safety standards for hotels and other public buildings. Now investigators are looking into violations of those standards in Oakland, California, where 36 people perished at a Dec. 2 concert inside the "Ghost Ship" warehouse.
"I bet they sweep their city and say 'no more of this,'" said Allen Goodwin, who co-authored the book "The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire."
"It moves it up the priority scale when lives are lost, and that's exactly what happened with the Winecoff fire on a global basis," Goodwin said.
Following the Oakland fire, local officials say they're looking to strengthen regulations for smoke alarms and exits. New regulations also are being considered, such as enhanced fire inspections and monitoring illegal events, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement this week.
Nationally, the Oakland fire is a reminder that fire threats continue to change, partly because of social media, and learning from the blazes can lead to stronger fire safety standards, National Fire Protection Association President Jim Pauley said in a statement.
"In Oakland, the changing occupancy of that building may have only been known to those who lived or worked there, not to the fire service or other officials," he said. "This is likely a scenario happening in other places around the country. The ability to attract large numbers of people to an unknown venue is easy through new ways of social media. Couple that with the rate of speed, things can go from bad to worse when there are blocked or not enough exits and lots of combustibles."
The Dec. 7, 1946, Atlanta inferno came near the end of a dreadful year for hotel fires. Months earlier, 61 people were killed in a Chicago hotel fire and 19 others perished in a hotel blaze in Dubuque, Iowa.
The burning hotels were huge news, Goodwin said. In the Atlanta fire, an amateur photographer captured the horror of a woman leaping from the building to escape the flames, an image that was distributed by The Associated Press and won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Photography.
Cities across the nation began strengthening their fire codes after the Winecoff fire, Goodwin said, and President Harry S. Truman called for a national convention to find ways to prevent more deaths.
"The great hotel fires of last year again showed that we cannot afford to entrust our citizens' lives to unsafe buildings," Truman said in his opening address to The President's Conference on Fire Prevention in Washington, D.C., in 1947, according to documents from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Missouri.
The conference program urged attendees to "aggressively support this national war against the growing menace of fire."
The Winecoff fire led to new building codes requiring multiple fire exits. The Winecoff had only one staircase near the center of the building, which acted as a chimney to loft smoke and fire into the hotel's upper floors, according to documents from the Atlanta History Center.
Self-closing "fire doors" also came about after the Winecoff fire, which fed on air that was released when guests opened doors and transoms.
Hamil and his father managed to escape only because their top floor was nearly on a level with the Mortgage Guarantee Building next door. A custodian from that building placed a ladder across the alley to rescue him.
"I heard somebody say 'grab the ladder,' and I thought it was coming from the ground, but it wasn't. It was coming from straight across," Hamil said. "There were only three people on our floor who survived — my dad, myself and this lady from Mississippi. The rest of the people perished on that floor."
The Winecoff, built in 1913, remained standing after the fire but eventually became vacant and stayed that way for years. It underwent a multimillion dollar makeover a decade ago and reopened in 2007 as the Ellis Hotel.
This week Hamil drove from his home in Dawsonville, Georgia, into downtown Atlanta to mark the fire's anniversary.
Hamil had been at the Winecoff because he was tagging along with his father, an adviser to students who'd traveled to Atlanta for a mock legislative program at the state Capitol. Thirty of the youths perished in the blaze, which added to the nation's collective grief, Goodwin said.
"It shook the world, and it broke hearts all over Georgia," he said.
This week, Hamil, now 79, visited the 10th-floor room where four boys from the youth gathering died. He called it surreal. Now, he and others are remembering how catastrophic loss led to better safety standards.
"For 119 people to perish, to have something good come out of that is absolutely good," he said.