On May 15, 1938, Styron was promoted to the rank of Second Assistant Chief. The following day, Monday, May 16, 1938, at 3:15 A.M., Assistant Chief Styron was presented with one the most challenging fire's of his career at the five-story Terminal Hotel, which was located at the corner of Spring and Mitchell streets. Although the brick joist building was well involved in fire upon the arrival of the first fire companies; there were many daring rescues performed by firefighters from ladders and adjacent buildings. Despite their efforts, thirty-five people were killed during this tragic event.
As a result of the Terminal Hotel Fire, Assistant Chief Styron, who responded on the first alarm (Box No. 51), had gained considerable knowledge of rescuing occupants from a multi-story building; and most likely was of the opinion that he had witnessed the worst loss of life of his fire service career. On March 21, 1939, Styron was promoted to the rank of Chief of Department, succeeding Chief Otha J. Parker upon the occasion of his retirement.
While serving at Engine House No. 8 during the early years of his career, Chief Styron was sure to have observed the skyline of Atlanta surging toward the heavens; as more and more multi-story buildings were being constructed. One such building was the fifteen-story Winecoff Hotel; erected at the Southwest corner of Peachtree and Ellis streets; the height of which was surely in Styron's view from his post at No. 8's Engine House.
The Winecoff Hotel was built by William F. Winecoff, and completed in 1913. The structure was of brick ordinary-joist construction. The floors were numbered one to sixteen, excluding the numbering of a thirteenth floor; and it is said that the number thirteen was never posted anyplace within the building. In its center core were two enclosed elevators and an open T-shaped stairway. Built utilizing the 1911 building codes, and classified as "fireproof" at that time, the steel frame was protected, and the roof and floors were concrete with protected steel beams and girders.
Although there was considerable attention given to making the buildings structural members fire resistive, there was no automatic sprinkler system, no fire doors, and no exterior fire escapes. However, the building did meet the existing codes, and was widely advertised as an "fireproof" hotel.
With particular attention to "fireproof" features in the construction of the Winecoff Hotel, one can only surmise that William Winecoff, and his wife Grace, were considerably concerned with the threat of fire following the total destruction of their magnificent mansion home on Peachtree Circle on December 8, 1913. The members of No. 8's Engine House, along with companies 4's and 11's, battled the blaze at the Winecoff Mansion. The Winecoff's would later take up residence at their new hotel, occupying the penthouse on the sixteenth floor.
It was the year following the conclusion of World War II, and much excitement filled the emotions of Atlanta's inhabitant's as Christmas approached. It is believed that some 280 guest occupied the Winecoff Hotel on Friday evening December 6th., including a large number of teenagers from across the state of Georgia; in town to attend the annual Youth Assembly at the Georgia State Capital which was being sponsored by the YMCA.
At 3:42 A.M. a telephone alarm was received at fire headquarters reporting a fire at the Winecoff Hotel. No. 8's Engine and Ladder, along with 4's, 1's and 3's engine's, and 4's and 1's ladder, Rescue, and the Light Truck were dispatched to Peachtree and Ellis streets. Along with the first alarm, Second Assistant Chief F. J. Bowen, and Chief of Department Charles C. Styron, Sr., responded
Upon No. 8's arrival at the Winecoff, having arrived there within two minutes of receiving the alarm, the firefighter's discovered dense smoke and flames emitting from the third, fourth and fifth floors! To compound this sight, the horrifying sound of voices of trapped occupant's could be heard echoing from the thick smoke high above historic Peachtree Street. Chief Styron order his men to began an immediate rescue effort with the aerial-ladders, while an interior attack was deployed utilizing the interior stairway to advance hoselines. Much to the horror of the firefighters, bodies began to appear through the thick smoke from above, and violently plummeted to the sidewalk on Peachtree Street...jumpers!
Simultaneously, a second and third alarm was sounded by Chief Styron at 3: 44 A.M., summoning additional engines and ladders. As the magnitude of this event continued to reveal itself, a fourth alarm was sounded at 3: 49 A.M., followed by a general alarm at 4:02 A.M.; summoning all of Atlanta's equipment, as well as the entirety of all off-duty personnel.
As the aerial-ladders were being raised to rescue the trapped occupants, flood lights were activated, and directed upon the building which revealed the panic stricken faces of the people who were desperately pleading and waving for help while hanging from the windows of their rooms.
Life nets were also deployed, and were held by firefighters, police officers and civilians standing on Peachtree Street. As soon as the nets were brought into place, falling bodies began to appear through the smoke; making hard impact upon landing upon the canvas of the round white nets. In the confusion, more than one victim jumped for the same net at one time, with tragic results.
With bodies suddenly dropping through the smoke, firefighter's climbing ladders, and those working in the street were in harms way. Firefighter A.J. Burnham was struck and critically injured by a victim who either fell or jumped from a window! While another firefighter had his coat torn off as a jumper grabbed it as they fell to their death.
The nets were designed for trapped occupants to leap to safety from the lower floors of multi-story buildings. The majority of Atlanta's aerial-ladders were 55' to 85' in length, with the longest on the scene being No. 8's 100' ladder; which had to be taken out service due to a malfunction in the hydraulic system. The trapped occupants above the eighth floor had no hope of being rescued by firefighters utilizing the aerial-ladders.
While some occupants continued to jump hoping to land in one of the nets, others began to tie sheets together for the purpose of making makeshift ropes to climb down to a ladder. Some of these brave people succeeded in climbing down the ropes to a ladder, while many others, engaged in this desperate effort lost their grip on the sheet ropes, and fell to their deaths as the ever increasing crowd of spectators standing in the cold December air on Peachtree Street gasped in horror!
Several of the nets were destroyed as the victims from the upper floors struck them with such force that they ripped apart! It is believed that two sisters, who jumped from a ninth floor window (each receiving a fractured spine along with fractured extremities), may very well be among the only victims ever to have jumped into a life net and survived from such an incredible height!
Inside the Winecoff, firefighters worked their way up the single open stairway, which was situated at the center of the building. There they encountered intense flames devouring the interior fixtures, wallpaper, and furniture on the third floor. As they struggled to maneuver their hoselines into place on the stairway, the fierce flames above them must have appeared as a flaming vertical tunnel.
Here, the firefighters began an interior attack on the fire, while having to endure the blistering heat and thick choking smoke, which was forcing the occupants above them to jump to their deaths. Their assignment was an extremely difficult task; having to advance upon the flames with hose streams, while carefully climbing the smoke filled stairway one step at a time.
As additional hose streams were being deployed, the hoses began to become tangled, making the task even more difficult. As soon as one hoseline was extended to its full length, a hose clamp would be applied, shutting off the water supply while another length of hose was connected, then the hose stream was placed back into service.
On the back side of the building, thick smoke filled the 10 foot wide alley between the Winecoff Hotel and the twelve-story Mortgage Guaranty building on Ellis Street. Here, the scene was not unlike the one on Peachtree Street, with the exception that there was no space in which to maneuver an aerial-ladder. Here, firefighters could not see the victims hanging from their windows because of the smoke, however, they could hear them desperately calling for help. The occupants were dropping suitcases and other items from their windows to the ally below in an attempt to get the attention of the firefighter's. Shortly, bodies began to drop through the smoke in the ally, and crashed upon the ground of the small ally.
Following the lead of a civilian, who had escaped death from his room at the Winecoff by climbing down an aerial-ladder; then having rushed around to the entrance of the Mortgage Guaranty building on Carnegie Way; he had sprinted up the steps and used a painters walkboard to form a bridge between the two buildings. The civilian, Jimmy Cahill from Albany, Georgia, had recently returned home following the end of the war in the Pacific where he was a crew member flying mission aboard a B-25 bomber. On this occasion, Cahill was on another mission - saving his mother from the blazing Winecoff. Cahill located his mother by hearing her calling to him through the dense smoke from her sixth floor window. Upon securing the painters walkboard, Cahill had successfully rescued his mother, and soon, firefighters were making similar rescues by utilizing ladders placed between the two buildings.
Meanwhile, Chief Styron had summoned assistance from neighboring fire department's, firefighters responded to the Winecoff Hotel from: East Point, Hapeville, Fort McPherson, Conley Motor Base, College Park, Decatur, Marietta, Avondale, Druid Hills, and the Navel Air Base. In addition to the out-of-town fire companies, ambulances were required to rush the injured to Grady Hospital and other hospital's in the area, where the attendant's, upon completion of delivering an injured victim, quickly rushed back to the Winecoff to retrieve yet another victim. With the number of dead continuing to increase, undertakers from area funeral homes were summoned to take charge of the bodies.
The fire continued to intensify within the building, as the dark thick smoke began to push from the windows with an ever increasing velocity. Along with the upsurge in the momentum of the smoke, burst of orange flames began to appear within the smoke coming from the windows, followed by a flashover, which occurred with a mighty blast! Multiple floors burst into flames all at once, and the orange glow illuminated the surrounding buildings with an ominous amber glow.
Firefighters directed streams of water from aerial-ladders to the upper floors as best they could; while the firefighter's inside the stairway continued to battle their way up the stairway. Fire streams were directed upon the Winecoff from the windows of adjacent buildings; firefighter's having advanced hoselines there to gain the advantage of the elevated positions. For the next two hours, they would battle the flames ravaging the interior of the Winecoff, which now more closely resembled a blazing brick furnace. Collectively, the firefighter's finally brought the fire under control just before dawn.
At first light Saturday morning, the brick of the smoldering hulk of the fifteen story building was scorched and blackened with a covering of soot from the deadly smoke. Soot stained white sheets tied together by the occupants for the purpose makeshift ropes dangled from window ledges; a testament of the desperation of those who once occupied this popular hotel. Firefighters had already began to bring out some of the victims who were unable to escape from their rooms.
Fire apparatus filled Peachtree Street, along with an ever increasing throng of spectators, who had gathered to observe this tragic scene for themselves. Hearst lined the secondary streets awaiting the remaining victims being removed from the building. With Grady Hospital's Morgue being filled to capacity earlier in the morning, the remaining victims had to be transported to area funeral homes until their family could perform the grim task of searching for, and identifying them among the vast number of victims.
In all, 119 people had been killed, and over 100 others injured. Among this number was 30 teenagers in town for the Youth Assembly, and William and Grace Winecoff, who died in their sixteenth floor penthouse. Thirty-two engines, five aerial-ladders, six city service ladder trucks, and other support vehicles totaling forty-nine pieces of fire service apparatus responded to the Winecoff Hotel Fire. The cause of this tragic event remains a mystery even today.
However, an in-depth study of the fire, the personal stories of the survivors, as well as the victims, and a possible cause was conducted and recorded in the book, The Winecoff Fire - The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire, by Sam Hays and Allen B. Goodwin. The book was released in 1993, and is the most comprehensive study conducted to date.
What was once the Winecoff Hotel Building still stands today, in the year 2002. Thousands of people pass by the building each day with no knowledge of the tragic fire which claimed so many lives in 1946; with only a historic marker to remind those who occasionally pause to read the story of the tragic event. The building was indeed "fireproof" as it was intended, and even with considerable attention to "fireproofing" the building for the time period in which it was constructed, there are many lessons to be learned from this event:
- The interior furnishings were of ordinary combustible materials
- There was no automatic sprinkler system installed in the building
- The absence of exterior fire escapes
- The absence of installation of fire doors
- The open center core stairway
Those firefighters charged with the difficult task of enforcing life safety and fire codes each day are well familiar with the above factors; because they must struggle each day to prevent a tragedy from occurring. Even with the technology and engineering available today, and the vast number of codes which apply to construction features, which are far to open for interpretation, even among our own ranks, serious fires continue to occur. We in the fire service must revisit the past, and study the cause of tragic fires, and ask:
- What caused the fire
- How did the fire intensify and spread (one must achieve a comprehensive knowledge of fire behavior to effectively apply this analysis)
- Which construction features contributed to the fire
- Which construction features were effective in reducing the intensity of fire spread
- What effect did the construction features have upon the path and accumulation of smoke
- What was the cause and means of death of the victims
- What can we as individual firefighters do to contribute to reducing the possibility of a large loss of life fire in our communities
As for Chief Charles Styron, Sr., he continued to lead the Atlanta Fire Department until his retirement in 1959. During his tenure, he had observed the department's transition from the horse drawn steamers, to motorized engines, he fought some of the most horrific fires in the cities history, and he guided the organization through some of the years which brought about considerable growth; both in population, as well as geographic expansion.
Upon his retirement in June of 1959, Chief Styron had served the Atlanta Fire Department for fifty-one dedicated years.