The Winecoff Fire - 50 Years Later

Dave E. Williams recounts the deadliest hotel fire to date, which claimed 119 lives and injured over 100 people in Atlanta.


Dec. 7, 1996, marks the 50th anniversary of what to date has been the deadliest hotel fire in American history. The alarm box struck in at 3:42 A.M. on Saturday, Dec. 7, 1946. In the post-World War II boom, and long before the invention of suburban shopping malls, many workers would stay in...


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Dec. 7, 1996, marks the 50th anniversary of what to date has been the deadliest hotel fire in American history. The alarm box struck in at 3:42 A.M. on Saturday, Dec. 7, 1946.

In the post-World War II boom, and long before the invention of suburban shopping malls, many workers would stay in downtown areas on Friday evenings, partying much like we do for "happy hours" today. Grover C. Williams, my father, was among the workers who decided on that Friday evening to stay overnight in downtown Atlanta. He and a friend wanted to stay at the Winecoff Hotel but due to a convention, it was full. He and his buddy stayed a block away in the Avon Hotel. Before that fateful night was through, he and many other bystanders would be asked by the Atlanta Fire Department to help hold a life net as victims leaped from the burning Winecoff Hotel.

12_96_winecoff1.jpg
Photo Courtesy Associated Press
Having made sheet ropes that they would later have to use, Winecoff Hotel guests look longingly down on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on Dec. 7, 1946. This photo was taken by amateur photographer Arnold Hardy and sold to Associated Press.


12_96_winecoff3.jpg
Photo Courtesy Associated Press
Amateur photographer Arnold Hardy won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo of a woman falling or jumping from the Winecoff Hotel. The picture was published worldwide by Associated Press and is the most-remembered image of the Winecoff fire. The book The Winecoff Fire identifies the woman as Daisy McCumber, who survived despite numerous injuries.

One man jumped from an upper floor with a baby boy in his arms. The father's head hit the rim of the life net and he was killed. The child survived the fall and was carried by my Dad to a waiting ambulance. The child was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital and survived the tragedy. Today, he lives in Fort Hays, KS.

Periodically, a reunion of Winecoff survivors is held in Atlanta. On Dec. 4, 1994, the victim and the civilian who carried the little boy away from the building and the nurse who attended to him at the hospital met and had a long chat. Since that time, my father has died, so history will show they met only twice and for short periods of time in both cases. My Dad had not talked much about that night until the Sunday afternoon of the 1994 reunion.

The building still stands in downtown Atlanta and is under renovation to be a hotel again this time with sprinklers and meeting all of the modern code requirements that will make this a much safer building than it has ever been. On Dec. 7, 1996, at 3:42 A.M., a 50th-year memorial service is planned. Apparatus from all the fire departments that fought the fire were invited to attend. The Atlanta Fire Department extends an invitation to you to be a part of this historic event. As was the case 50 years ago, this will be early on a Saturday morning.

The late Deputy Chief Steven B. Campbell was the unofficial historian of the Atlanta Fire Department. This is the story of the Winecoff Hotel fire, written by one who was there and taken from the department's Prompt To Action book of 1960.

The Winecoff Hotel Fire
Saturday, Dec. 7, 1946

The hotel was situated at the southwest corner of Peachtree and Ellis Streets on the highest eminence of downtown Atlanta. It had been built in 1913 by the William A. Fuller Co. of New York. The architect was W.L. Stoddard, also of New York. The cost at the time it was built was in excess of $350,000 and at the time of the fire it had an estimated value of $750,000 to $1 million.

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Photo Courtesy Longstreet Press
The Winecoff Hotel was engulfed in the explosive-like eruption of a flashover fire.

The structure occupies a plot 63 feet by 70 feet at grade, with the main entrance and marquee on Peachtree Street. It was 15 stories (about 155 feet) with a full basement and a small sub-basement. The floors were numbered from one to 16 but, as is the case in many hotels, there was no 13th floor. It had been omitted from the numbering system out of deference to superstition. The top floor was known as the 16th.

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