Survivor of the Winecoff Hotel fire remembers it 75 years later

Tuesday marked the 75th anniversary of the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta. It remains the deadliest hotel fire in the United States.

WSB’s Sandra Parrish has been telling the stories of the survivors, those who rescued them, and even the journalists who covered it over the years.

She first met Richard Hamil at the 60th anniversary of the fire and connected with him again at the 70th. His memories from that night are still just as clear on the 75th.

“They’re (memories) not as vivid as they were maybe five or ten years ago,” he laughs. “They’re still there. I remember it distinctly just like I did in the past.”

The now 84-year-old was 9 when he accompanied his father who was chaperoning a group of eight teenage boys from Rome High School attending the Tri-Hi Y mock legislature at the Capitol. He and his dad were on the 15th floor of the hotel when he was awakened by a commotion outside their room.

“When we opened the door, we knew what the problem was because the hall was filled with smoke,” he tells Parrish.

Trying to find the elevator to no avail, the two became disoriented and ended up in the room of Jan Wallace who was on the verge of jumping out the window.

“She was panicked… so Daddy started talking to her. And he said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that yet’,” says Hamil.

The three put wet towels over their heads and stood by the window.

“The noise was so deafening at that point,” he recalls.

Knowing no one could hear their cries for help, Hamil grabbed a lamp in the room and held it out the window hoping it would get rescuers attention.  It apparently worked.

“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,” he says.

Both he and his father reached for it, feeling the warm bricks beneath the window. Hamil blacked out at that point and was carried, along with his father and Wallace, across that ladder placed between the hotel and the Mortgage Guarantee Building on the other side of the alley.

He only remembers ending up on the street and being placed in a cab to Grady Hospital because all the ambulances were full. He had no visible injuries from the ordeal while his father suffered burns to his eyes.

“I think I became very grateful for the rest of my life having survived that because 119 didn’t survive. And I think it made me appreciate things more,” he says.

Four of the teens his father was chaperoning didn’t make it out, something Hamil says his dad never got over.

Also, among the 30 students killed, were four Seniors from Gainesville High School. A plaque remembering 17-year-old Gwen McCoy, 16-year-old Ella Sue Mitchum, 16-year-old Suzanne Moreno Moore, and 17-year-old Frances Thompson was rededicated at the high school Tuesday afternoon.

Sandra Parrish

Sandra Parrish

News Anchor Reporter for political, legislative, transportation, and educational news.

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