07 Dec On This Day In History: 76 Years Ago 119 People Perished in Deadliest Hotel Fire in U.S. History
Ironically Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel touted itself in advertisements and on its stationery as being “absolutely fireproof.” Instead of being immune to fire, the Winecoff Hotel is notorious for being the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history that resulted in 119 dead, 65 injured, 120 rescued, and 32 jumped or fell to their deaths.
The fire at the 15-floor Winecoff Hotel on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta not only took the lives of the owners, William and Grace Winecoff, who lived in an apartment in the hotel but 30 high school students on a YMCA trip for a youth-in-government mock legislative program being held at the state capitol perished that fateful morning.
It was in the early hours of December 7, 1946, around 3:15 a.m., when the fire began in a third-floor hallway of the fully occupied hotel of 280 guests. A bellboy who was on the fifth floor noticed smoke and became trapped. But it wasn’t until 3:42 a.m. that the hotel’s night manager made the first and only call to Atlanta Fire Department to get help. It took firefighters only minutes to arrive because the Winecoff Hotel was within two blocks of two Atlanta Fire Rescue Department engine and ladder companies.
However, because the emergency call was received almost 30 minutes after the fire started hotel guests had already begun jumping from windows to try and save themselves. As the fire spread all the guests above the third floor were trapped. This resulted in the hotel’s occupants either jumping or tying bedsheets together to escape from what was the tallest building in Atlanta at that time. At a height of 62.75’, it posed a challenge to firefighters and occupants alike. Some survivors were rescued by jumping into firefighters’ nets. Other people were rescued via ladders placed horizontally across the alley from the adjoining Mortgage Guaranty Building. Altogether 385 firefighters, 22 engine companies, and 11 ladder trucks responded to the call for help.
Theories of the fire’s origin include a cigarette being carelessly tossed onto a mattress in a hallway, and even a case of arson was floated as being the cause. Authors of the 1993 book, “The Winecoff Fire,” point to evidence of arson, committed by a disgruntled felon who had just left a card game on the third floor. No one was ever charged.
Despite being advertised as “fireproof,” the Winecoff Hotel did not have an automatic fire sprinkler system and the fire alarm system had to be manually operated from the hotel’s front desk. The fire’s spread was compounded by the movable wood transom panels that acted as windowed vents located above each guest room door. Many of the transoms were open, creating a flue-like effect that allowed the fire to spread through the corridors to individual rooms with ease. The fire was also able to climb to all but the two top floors of the hotel. Further enabling the air to accelerate the fire, guests opened windows seeking fresh air and possible rescue by firefighters. This allowed air to flow through the rooms and into the corridor aiding the spread of fire and smoke rather than preventing it. As the fire made its way to the hotel’s corridors, the fire fed on combustible burlap wainscot wallcoverings. Tragically, the Winecoff only had one exit stairway that served all 15 floors which quickly became impassable.
The Winecoff fire, in conjunction with the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire (November 28, 1942), spurred significant changes to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 101 — Life Safety Code. The most significant revisions that resulted from the two fires were the requirements of providing multiple means of egress, requirements for determining flamespread and smoke production, as well as self-closing fire-resistant doors for hotel guest rooms. “Code requirements implemented nearly 40 years later after another rash of hotel fires in the 1980s added further limitations to interior wall, floor, and ceiling finish materials to lessen the involvement in fire spread and smoke production by these finish materials. The burlap wainscot wallcoverings and multiple layers of wallpaper identified in guest rooms would not be allowed by contemporary requirements,” explains TERPconsulting’s Mark Hopkins, PE, a former member of NFPA 101’s Life Safety Code, Fundamentals, Correlating Committee, Fire Protection Systems technical committees.
“The fire brought a new level of scrutiny and attention to building and fire codes. In fact, soon after the Winecoff fire, President Truman called for a national conference on fire prevention in 1947, which precipitated revisions to building and fire codes that addressed issues of finish combustibility, detection, and warning. Additionally, banning operable transoms in guest rooms was a direct result of the Winecoff fire,” says Mark. “The revisions to NFPA 101 were groundbreaking for that time and have directly impacted how we safely design and build hotels to this day, ensuring they are outfitted with carefully engineered and comprehensive fire protection systems.”
In downtown Atlanta, sitting at the corner of Peachtree and Ellis streets, a historical plaque has been erected memorializing the fire, it reads, in part: “The Winecoff fire became the watershed event in fire safety. Within days, cities across America began enacting more stringent safety ordinances. The fact that the Winecoff fire remains the worst hotel fire In U.S. history is testimony to its impact on modern fire safety codes.”