ATLANTA (Reuters) - In 1946, an amateur photographer captured the horror of the most deadly hotel fire in U.S. history. His iconic image showed a woman, arms outstretched, leaping from the 11th floor.
The fire at the Winecoff Hotel in downtown Atlanta killed 119 people and shocked public opinion, much as the sinking of the Titanic had done in 1912.
For decades the Winecoff lay abandoned, but its interior has now been renovated and re-opened as the 127-room Ellis Hotel, part of a renewal of central Atlanta.
On the night of December 7, 1946, the Winecoff was virtually full. The fire started on the third floor and spread quickly to the fifth floor, igniting the stairwell.
Hot gases rose to the roof and mushroomed back down, causing a “flashover” that burned rooms on the hotel’s middle floors simultaneously, according to Allen Goodwin, co-author of “The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America’s Deadliest Hotel Fire.”
Guests, desperate for oxygen, were forced to choose between leaping or waiting for rescue, even though fire ladders could only reach the 7th floor. Many jumped to their deaths.
Ed Williams, then 17, was staying on the 15th floor with his mother and younger sister when they were woken by smoke.
“We turned on the light and you couldn’t see a thing ... I opened both the windows and we leaned out ... but there was so much smoke coming up that you couldn’t breathe much better,” Williams, who is now 78, said in an interview.
Eventually he crawled out onto a windowsill, passed out and fell, bouncing onto a ladder stretched from a neighboring building three floors below without falling off. His mother and sister died.
“I wonder why the Lord left me and took my mother,” he said. “Since then I have just tried to live a good life.”
Richard Hamil, then nine, was staying on the 15th floor with his father. The sound of fire engines woke them up.
In the confusion and smoke they found a woman preparing to jump. His father talked her out of it and the three of them soaked towels in water to help filter out the smoke.
“The noise was incredible. The amount of people screaming and the fire below us. We knew nobody could hear us,” said Hamil, now 69.
Eventually, someone threw a ladder across from the next door building and they were able to crawl across to safety.
“I never realized what danger we were in,” he said, crediting his father with saving his and the woman’s life. He said he was pleased a new hotel was opening on the site.