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Deadly Winecoff Hotel fire led to improved safety

Guest commentary

John Wallace

John Wallace

In 1930, three girls were born: Phoebe “Ann” Walker, Marianne Scherle and Julia Ann “Judy” Hall. They were all born at the start of the Depression. Things were just starting to get better and then we were drawn into World War II on the day that will live in infamy, Dec. 7, 1941, and for the next four years they put up with our boys dying “over there.”

Finally, Germany surrendered, then Japan surrendered and peace finally returned to the land and the war was over.

The next year they would be seniors at Albany High School. Ann Walker was the president of the Bookworm Club. Marianne Scherle was the assistant editor of the yearbook for the class of ’47 and president of the Youth Fellowship at church. Judy Hall was a student council member and homeroom president. They were also members of the Tri-Hi-Y, a YMCA Youth Assembly organization that allowed student to experience first-hand the excitement and importance behind the legislative process and better understand the complexity of the lawmaking process in this state. And in 1946, for the first time, 40 Youth Assembly teenagers from around the state — the select few, the best and the brightest — were going to Atlanta, to the State House to meet the governor and participate in a mock legislative session.

They were staying in the tallest building in Atlanta, The Winecoff Hotel. The hotel was built in the European style, all brick on the outside, all rooms with an outside view and the spiral stairs and elevator were in the middle of the building, 15 floors to the roof that had an opening to let out air, just like a chimney. The hotel boasted in its advertisement that it was “absolutely fireproof.” Turns out that’s an insurance industry term for a building with a steel structure.

About 3:10 a.m., Dec. 7, 1946, a day that will live in infamy in hotel history, the elevator operator passed by the third floor and realized there was a fire. When she got to the ground floor, she shouted “Fire!” and hotel personnel went into their prescribed fire emergency drill.

Employees were sent to fight the fire and alert the guests. Phone calls to rooms were made. Finally at 3:42, a call to the fire station was made. The fire department responded within five minutes, but they were probably 40 minutes late. Upon investigation, it appeared that the third to fifth floors were already ablaze.

As the heat and flames shot through the halls and rooms, the guests rushed to open the windows. As the icy relief of the frigid air flowed past them, amid the roar of the fire and the screaming of the guests, you could hear the fat lady start to sing. The doors to the stairs were all open to keep a breeze going through the hallways and the chimney-like effect of the fresh air had the entire building in flames before the fire department arrived.

Calls were sent out throughout the city for all available stations to respond. Eventually, 22 engines and 12 ladder trucks arrived to battle the blaze. They started pouring water on the fire, but the water only went so high. You could see people at their windows waving for help, but the ladders only reached to the seventh floor. Our girls are on the eighth floor.

There were 280 people booked into the hotel that night. One hundred and 19 died and 90 were injured. The first Pulitzer Prize awarded to an amateur photographer, Arnold Hardy, was for a shot of a woman falling from the Winecoff Hotel. Defying the odds, she bounced off a pole, hit some railings and, although she lost a leg, she lived. Another women fell from the fifth floor and survived only because she landed on a pile of bodies. Heroic acts were performed by guests and fire personnel.

The outcry from these senseless deaths, still the deadliest hotel fire in American history, resulted in major changes in the fire protection industry, specifically fire alarms, fire exits providing more than one way out, fire-resistant doors to slow the spread of fire and the fire sprinkler system.

Ann, Judy and Marianne did come home. They are all resting in peace at the Crown Hill Cemetery, and I like to think they are aware of all the lives that have been saved as result of their deaths and that their lives did make a difference.

John Wallace lives in Leesburg and works with the U.S. Postal Service in Albany.

Comments

Sister_Ruby 1 year, 7 months ago

WTF was this one about?????? Nearly 100 years ago and nothing about new handouts for the poor and disenfranchised and those whose great great great grandparent(s) was brought to this country to work the fields and how wrong that was, despite who it was who captured and sold them originally, and how well they could be doing today in this land of the free and home of the brave if only they would get down off their front porch and go find a job? I guess I missed it.

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FryarTuk 1 year, 7 months ago

Thanks for this article. My generation lived with the memories and ledgendary horror of this event. My folks talked about the fire in the fifties as if it were a contemporary event. Hopefully some positive and lasting results came.

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Cartman 1 year, 7 months ago

Good article! I was unaware.

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jwallac1 1 year, 7 months ago

Sister Ruby, thanks for the critique. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to you too, my sister. Just wanted to let you know I laughed like hell. Didn't the Judge tell you not to write letters to the editor when you were on mushrooms. Unfortunately, I seem to lack the mental capacity to make the connection between my letter and your comment to it. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the article, but I hope you think of those three girls next time you check into a hotel.

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winecoffwriter 1 year, 7 months ago

Wonderful article! It's important to keep the memory of the victims of this fire alive. For every person who has stayed in a hotel after has become more safe because of the 119 who died. I don't understand the connection made by Sister Ruby. If he had a relative or friend who ever died in a fire maybe he wouldn't write disrespectful comments of this sort. I've been researching the fire for two years now and have written an article about the victims from Thomaston, Georgia. Here's a link to the article.....

http://thomastontimes.com/view/full_story/21063768/article-Frozen-in-youth-forever---the-aftermath?instance=search_results

Remember them......the 119 people who died for your safety.

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jwallac1 1 year, 7 months ago

Thanks Winecoff reader. Read your article and thought, that's what I wanted to do but couldn't contact anyone who knew them, so just did research on internet. Did you see the interview with the nurse who was in charge of the morgue that night. Search for Winecoff Fire and interview with Great Aunt May. She tell when the bodies started coming in and how horrible it was and by the time the last ones came in she was just numb to her emotions and when she finally announced that there were 118 identified and one other one, the couple behind her said, "That one is our son." and how she never forgot that moment and tried to always remain professional afterward in all her dealings with hospital business becasue you never know who can hear you. It was heartbreaking. I stayed at the Ellis a few years ago, which is where I first heard this story. As for Sister Ruby, bless her heart, I think she was replying to another column.

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winecoffwriter 1 year, 7 months ago

Hi John,

I have tried to contact relatives of the Albany victims but no luck. Two of them were only children and Ann Walker had siblings but I believe them to be passed on. I know her brother Robert was a POW in World War II. I mainly was able to contact classmates who told me what I know about them. Yes.....I've seen that video of the lady who was at the hospital. I've interviewed a couple of people who were helping out there in my research including a Red Cross nurse that was on the scene.

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