As has been proven time and time again throughout the years, words like “unsinkable” and “fireproof” seem to mean very little when it comes to the power of the forces of nature. Ships sink and theaters and hotels burn – but few of them burn with the kind of horror seen at the Winecoff Hotel on December 7, 1946. The hotel, with 285 guests crowded into 194 rooms, was gutted by a six-hour fire that claimed the lives of 119 guests and injured another 90, making it the worst hotel fire in American history.
There were 285 guests that checked into the hotel that night and it’s possible that even after death, many of them have never checked out.
Like most hotels in Atlanta in those days, it had no sprinkler systems and no outside fire escapes. It had been built with a central staircase winding around an enclosed bank of elevators and, aside from the elevators, the staircase was the only method of escape from the building. In spite of this, the hotel was pronounced safe when it was inspected only a short time before the disastrous blaze by the city’s fire marshal. The building was supposedly of fireproof construction, which merely meant that the framework of the building would remain sounds after a fire – it said nothing of the contents and unfortunately, people are not fireproof.
The hotel was 15 stories tall with the floors numbered consecutively except for number 13, which was eliminated from the numbered system for the usual superstitious reason. The structure was protected by a shielded steel frame, and the roof and floors were made from concrete. The exterior was composed of 12-inch-thick brick panels, and inside partitions were constructed of tile plastered on both sides, ensuring that the structure would remain stable. Unfortunately, the walls and hallways were covered with painted burlap from the wooden baseboards to the chair rails, above which they were papered. Corridor floors had wall-to-wall carpeting over felt padding. Doors to rooms were of light panel wood, with wood frames and transoms. The rooms were wallpapered, some with as many as five layers of paper, and ceilings were painted. A few of the guest room windows were fitted with wooden venetian blinds, but most were fitted with ordinary cloth drapes. While the building itself was indestructible, apparently little thought was given to its contents, which were, of course, highly flammable. A kitchen stove, for example, is a “fireproof” device that contains flame for controlled use and function, but it can still burn flesh if anyone were unwise enough to try and climb inside.
The hotel’s design also included many openings, mostly vertical, such as ventilating shafts. These openings also had a hidden use: In the event of a fire, they would serve as chimneys and fans to draw oxygen-seeking flames onto all 15 floors. The hotel was also equipped with transoms above the guest room doors, which, when opened, would also help to spread flames in the case of a fire.
The two elevators shafts, as mentioned, were centrally located with a single staircase wrapping around it up and down the length of the building. The stairs began on each floor as a single staircase, and then branched off into opposite directions halfway up, each stairway leading to two long corridors that ran parallel to each other. Since the elevator shafts were enclosed with fire resistive materials, a blaze, should it occur, would probably proceed up the staircase, feeding on the burlap wallcovering, wallpaper and woodwork.
On the morning of December 7, 1946, the Winecoff Hotel was filled nearly to capacity with almost 300 guests on the hotel register. It was 3:30 a.m. when the hotel’s night clerk, Comer Rowan, who was sitting in for his wife, noticed the switchboard light for Room 510 was blinking. The guest asked for some ginger ale and ice. Rowan rang for Billy Mobley, the only night bellhop on duty. Mobley took the items up in the elevator and was joined on the trip by the night engineer, who was making his routine nightly check. When they arrived at Room 510, they had to wait for three minutes because the guest was in the bathtub.
Meanwhile, the elevator operator, a young woman, slowly took the car back downstairs. Around the third floor, she thought she smelled smoke and took the elevator down to the basement. From there, she ran up to the main floor and told Rowan. He told her to go to the fifth floor and find Mobley and the engineer. Leaping over the desk, Rowan raced up the stairs to the mezzanine and saw flames reflected there in a mirror. He dashed for the telephone and called the fire department. It was 3:42 a.m. and within a few minutes, three ladder and four pumper companies pulled away from their station, two blocks away.
On the fifth floor, Mobley and the engineer emerged from Room 510, where they had spent a few minutes talking to the night-owl guest. As they opened the door, flames and dense clouds of black smoke swept toward them. They slammed the door closed.
Rowan plugged in every guest telephone as fast as he could, shouting “Fire! Fire! Fire!” Then, the switchboard went dead. The guests that had been sleeping peacefully in their rooms were now on their own. There was no fire alarm in the “fireproof” hotel. By the time the firemen arrived, the building was in chaos, filled with rushing, frenzied people – many of them ready to jump from the windows high above the street.
The firemen urged them not to jump, even though the hotel, from the third to the fifteenth floor was a blazing inferno. The firemen were faced with the dilemma of fighting the fire or saving the frantic guests who were shrieking from the window ledges above them. They chose rescue, hurried to their ladders and sent them up. More fire brigades began to arrive, until the city’s complete 60-piece fire department was surrounding the burning hotel. Their ladders, though they reached to the tenth floor, could not be elevated quickly enough.
Everything inside of the hotel was burning – drapes, wooden trim, furniture, bedding – and with no sprinkler system to douse the blaze, the hungry flames swept through hallways and blasted up staircases and elevator shafts. Most of the transoms above the guest room doors were open, as were the windows, which created even more drafts to feed the flames. Bed sheets were hung from the windows to be used as ropes but were far from the ground.
With no way to escape, the heat of the flames drove the guests to the windows. One woman appeared on a seventh-floor ledge holding her two children. A ladder shot up to meet her, but before it came within reach, she threw her small son into the air, followed by her daughter. Then fell into the darkness, hurting toward the street below. A newspaper reporter on the scene wrote about what happened next:
Her nightgown shone white against the flames behind her as she stood on the window ledge, high above the street. Then it, too, caught fire. She jumped. But she missed the net stretched by the firemen. She landed astride overhead wires. There she hung in flames. Finally, her body broke loose and toppled to the ground.
A fireman reached one woman on the fifth floor just as she was losing her grip on the window ledge. He swung her around the ladder and onto his back. As he backed downward with her, another woman jumped from a ledge several floors above. She struck the fireman and the woman on his back and all three of them fell to their deaths.
Even though firemen and spectators on the street urged those on the ledges not to move, scores of bed sheets tied together to form ropes began to be tossed from the windows and half-crazed guests began to lower themselves down toward the street. One girl crawled two floors downward on one of the makeshift ropes. A fire ladder swung over to get her and holding the sheets with one hand, she lunged for the ladder. But a split second before she could grab it, the sheets came apart and she crashed to the pavement.
The firefighters and the spectators held out safety nets, hoping to catch anyone who fell or jumped from a window. One man missed a net by inches after jumping from the tenth floor.
On the eighth floor, a woman stood on a window ledge, begging for someone to save her four-year-old son. As flames roared from the window behind her, she flung the little boy into the air. One of the spectators saw that there were no firemen near the place where the boy would land and he raced to the spot. Miraculously, he caught the boy in the air and the child was saved without injury. The mother fell a few seconds later, but was killed in the fall.
After seeing others leap to their death, a suicidal frenzy spread among the endangered hotel guests. Perhaps they believed that a certain death on the concrete below was better than burning to death or worse, surviving with permanent injuries. Others began to jump, sometimes regretting the decision – after it was too late. A girl scrambled for a ladder two floors below as searchlights swept over her, highlighting a face that was filled with terror. She groped for the ladder, blinded by the light, and missed. Her body fell crazily, spinning out of control, and smashed through the hotel’s marquee.
Another woman climbed out onto one of the makeshift bed sheet ropes and began to lower herself. It appeared that she might make it to one of the firemen’s ladders but then another woman crawled out of a window and flung herself onto the same bed sheet rope. Their combined weight caused the sheets to tear apart and both of them fell to their deaths.
Many of the guests were saved by the nets that were spread out by the firemen below. However, a few of them hit the nets with such force that the handles were ripped from the would-be rescuers’ hands, and hurtling bodies struck the earth. There was nothing that could be done for those who hit the pavement under those circumstances.
A girl on the seventh floor had been patiently waiting for rescue as the flames began creeping out of the window behind her. A net was finally arranged below. Spectators heard her shout, “I hope I live! I hope I live!” and then she jumped. She lived – although she broke a hip, one arm and one leg.
The suicidal mania that had gripped the guests stopped after 20 or so of them fatally plunged to their deaths. More and more of them crept out onto the window ledges to escape the deadly heat, flames and gas and waited their turn for rescue. Heroic firemen worked swiftly to get them down from the building safely. A number of the rescuers were injured during the effort and 25 of them were later hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
While many of the firemen had set to work trying to rescue the hotel guests who were clinging to the window ledges on the sides of the building, others had rushed inside to try and get control of the blaze. Inside of the lobby, a section of firemen began battling their way up the main staircase from the second floor, their hoses blasting the flames with water. They could hear the screams of trapped guests burning to death in the rooms above them. One man tried to seal off his room, taking his family into the bathroom. He turned on all of the water faucets but the heat from the flames almost instantly turned the water into steam. The toilet exploded, as did many others, and the man was found later asphyxiated with his head in the shower. His wife, holding onto their children, lay next to him. All were dead.
One couple that was trapped on the fourteenth floor was determined to live. As flames shot through the transom over the door and ignited the room, they crawled out onto the window ledge and slipped into the room next door, where the transom was closed. The couple there was trying to barricade the door. The man and woman on the ledge climbed into the room and tried to help. Both couples jammed a mattress against the door, constantly soaking it with water from the bathroom. For two hours, they soaked the mattress as the room filled with steam – but they lived.
A military officer, Major Jake Cahill, was in another room with his wife. He had sealed the transom and then had waited anxiously until a ladder reached the seventh floor window ledge of their room. Cahill’s elderly mother was in the room next door, but he was unable to reach her because of the fire. After he climbed down the ladder to safety behind his wife, Cahill immediately rushed into the Mortgage Guarantee Building next door and ran up the stairs to the seventh floor. He went from window to window until he saw his mother’s room directly across an alley. He obtained a long plank from somewhere, extended it between the two buildings and then crawled across it. He then led his mother back across the shaking board to safety.
Cahill alerted other guests about the plank and one of those saved by this method was Major General Paul W. Baade, who had commanded the 35th Army Division in Europe during World War II. He managed to bring his wife with him into the building across the alley.
For six hours, the firemen fought their way, floor by floor, through the fire, extinguishing blazes on each floor before continuing upward. None of them had ever experienced a fire with such intensity, and as they broke into one room after another, they discovered scenes that were beyond their comprehension. Brass doorknobs and telephones had melted. Light bulbs were fused. Heavy metal elevator doors were twisted. In some rooms, only the bedsprings remained, the rest of the furnishings having been completely consumed by fire.
The dead were everywhere. Bodies sprawled in hallways, smothered by the smoke and lack or air. A dead woman was found at an open window. She was untouched by the fire, seemingly asleep, with only a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. Room after room contained corpses of those who had died
in bed, never realizing the hotel was ablaze around them.
Yet, in the midst of all of this, the hotel stood, its structure still sound and “fireproof.”
When the pale winter sun rose that day in Atlanta, crowds assembled to see the firemen carry away the corpses of 119 people. Another 90 people were taken away on stretchers to area hospitals. The worst hotel fire in American history was finally over.
Among the dead was W. Frank Winecoff, suffocated in his tenth floor suite. Although he had sold his beloved hotel in 1937, he continued to live there in his retirement, insisting until the day that he died that Atlanta’s finest hotel was completely “fireproof.”
The building that was once the Winecoff Hotel survived the fire. Although nearly gutted, it reopened in the 1950s as the Peachtree on Peachtree hotel and then saw another incarnation in the 1960s as a retirement home. After changing hands several times, it sat vacant for years, dwarfed by the modern hotels and office buildings around it. More renovations were done in the 1990s and it is now open once again as the Ellis Hotel – a place that has its share of ghostly tales.
Stories have circulated for years that lingering remnants of the fire remain behind at the new hotel. Some of these stories even date back a few years to when the Ellis was being renovated. At the time, workmen on the job claimed that they were hearing footsteps and voices in empty rooms and that their tools often disappeared from where they had been left, mysteriously turning up on odd places. More recently, guests and staff members have also reported footsteps, along with loud cries and noises in the corridors, as if a group of people were frantically running down the hall. When they look out from their rooms, or turn a corner in pursuit of the noisy guests, they find that no one is there. The hallway is empty and deserted. Some also claim that they have been awakened at night to the smell of smoke, only to find that nothing is burning.
Perhaps most disconcerting, though, are the faces – eerie apparitions of people’s faces that have been reported peering out from the hotel’s windows. The tales regarding these ghostly visages began many years ago, when the building was abandoned. The faces were first believed to be those of homeless people or squatters, sleeping in the place after it had closed down. Security officers who searched the building, however, found no one inside.
As the years passed, the faces remained and are still sometimes reported today. These chilling images are distorted and unreal, human but inhuman, and some claim that appear to be screaming in terror. Are they real, or the result of fevered imaginations? Some believe the faces are nothing more than simulacra – the result of people’s ability to perceive familiar images in random patterns (such as the play of light and shadow upon a window). There are others, though, who believe the images are real and that they are the horror-filled faces of the people who died screaming at the Winecoff Hotel in 1946.
Those who spend the night at the Ellis these days can judge for themselves.