Seventy years ago today, 119 people lost their lives in the deadliest hotel fire in the country. Many of the 280 guests at the Winecoff Hotel had come to Atlanta to go Christmas shopping, a group of youth were in town to attend the Tri-Hi Y Youth Assembly, and others were going to see the premiere of the movie “Song of the South” which was playing across the street.
Richard Hamil was 9-years-old and was with his father who was chaperoning eight boys from Rome attending the youth assembly.
“We were awakened about 3:30 or 4am... whatever time the fire started. And we were able to get out of our room and thought we were going to be able to get out,” he tells WSB’s Sandra Parrish.
But he says they were not able to get off the 15th floor. Instead they ended up in a woman’s room.
“She was about to jump and Daddy talked her out of that and said we’re not going to do that. If the fire gets to us we will,” recalls Hamil.
Instead, a ladder was placed to their window from the building across the alley and all three were able to crawl across to safety.
But Hamil says four of the boys his father was there to accompany didn’t make it out which scarred his dad the rest of his life.
Hamil was among two survivors and a group of family members, whose loved ones either survived or died in the fire, who gathered in Sandy Springs Tuesday night to remember the 70th anniversary.
Bob Cox survived as well. He was just 11-months-old when he and his parents attempted to make it out the window on the 10th floor.
Because the fire ladder only made it to the 8th floor, his father tied bed sheets together and hung it out their window to reach it. A babysitter made it out successfully first.
“My mother started down and lost her grip and fell and hit the sidewalk. My father started down and the ladder was moved. So we fell and landed on one of the nets that people hold. He hit his head on the rim and I rolled into the middle,” says Cox.
He lost both his parents and ended up being raised on a farm by another family.
Janet Cox’s mother Dorothy was 16 at the time and also there to attend the youth assembly. She jumped from the 7th floor onto the Candler Building below, suffering two broken legs, a broken arm, a broken jaw and lost all her teeth. After spending six months in the hospital, she was able to go back home to Columbus.
Cox says it left a lasting impression on her mother.
“My mother always impressed on me not to stay on the high floors because she didn’t want to do that. But she always taught me to look behind the doors and see what the escape is,” she says.
The anniversary comes on a day when the country is mourning mass casualties in yet another catastrophic fire, this time in Oakland.
“I just think it’s very relevant and I think it’s the perfect timing to pay attention to it again,” she says.
Even though the hotel advertised itself as “fireproof” at the time, the Winecoff lacked fire escapes, sprinkler systems, and has an open stairway that allowed the fire to spread up the floors quickly.
Allen Goodwin, who co-authored a book on the Winecoff Hotel fire, says it’s the catalyst for today’s fire safety measures.
“It improved fire codes worldwide. It attracted so much attention and so much call for improved fire codes like sprinkler systems and modern technology that we enjoy,” he says.
The group planned to have lunch today at the now-renovated hotel which was renamed The Ellis on Peachtree.