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.