This Month in History: The Winecoff Fire

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Winecoff Hotel Fire | F.E. Moran Fire Protection

Come Visit the Hotel Winecoff – Absolutely Fireproof!

On December 7, 1946, the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, GA experienced a major fire that killed 119 people.  The Winecoff Hotel had the highest body count out of three major hotel fires that happened that year.  Following these fires, there was an uprising by citizens and the government, demanding more stringent fire safety standards.  The new interest in fire protection sparked law makers to update fire codes.  Since then, there hasn’t been a hotel fire disaster that has matched the Wincoff Hotel.

The Scene

Tourists were flocking to Atlanta, GA for the holiday season.  They were enjoying window displays and holiday shopping.  Others were visiting students on a pre-holiday school break field trip in Atlanta to learn about government.  Three hundred and four guests were staying at the Winecoff Hotel on December 7th, but one hundred and nineteen never left.

The Winecoff Hotel opened in 1913 as one of the tallest buildings in Atlanta.  It was fifteen floors with fifteen rooms per floor and a single, open stairway that went from the first floor to the fifteenth.  The stairway did not have fire-resistant doors nor was it enclosed.  The 1911 fire code, which was the most recent in 1913, only required buildings that were 5,000 square feet or larger to have more than one stairway.  However, ironically, the hotel advertised itself as “Absolutely fireproof” because of its steel structure.  Unfortunately, the advertisers did not take into account the very flammable contents inside the building.

The Fire

At 3:15am a bellboy was rung to the fifth floor to help a guest.  It is there that he became trapped by a fire that had traveled from the third floor.  No one knows when the fire started or how it started.  There are educated guesses that the fire started from an improperly disposed of cigarette and some furniture, but no definitive answers.  The night manager was informed of the fire and began calling guests one by one by phone at 3:42am.  At this time, he also called the fire department.  The hotel had a manual central fire alarm system, but, for an unknown reason, he didn’t use it.

The fire department arrived within thirty seconds.  By this time, the fire was too far gone for any guests to escape by themselves. 

The fire was fueled by layers and layers of wallpaper, open transoms between rooms, and furniture.  Nearly all hotel guests who had their transoms open for some fresh air had their room catch fire.  The fresh oxygen fueled the fire and pulled it into the guests’ rooms.

Three-hundred and eighty-five firefighters, twenty-two engine companies, and eleven ladder trucks fought the fire.  By 3:44am, a second alarm rang.  At 3:49am a third alarm rang.  By 4:02am a general alarm rang, asking all available units and off duty personnel to respond to the fire.

Firefighters rescued people by ladder and nets.  Some guests created ropes out of sheets and climbed down to the ladders, which weren’t tall enough to reach the upper windows.  Other guests crawled across the ladder, which was perched on a window across the street and onto a window at the Winecoff.  Guests who couldn’t escape with a ladder – or who were too afraid to wait – jumped.  Some landed in safety nets that firefighters held, others jumped to their demise.  Thirty-two of the one hundred and nineteen who died were killed by jumping from a window or from a sheet-rope failing.

Among those that died were the original owners, who lived in an apartment at the hotel and thirty out of forty students, who were staying at the hotel for a Youth in Government Legislative program. 

Between $3 million and $4 million in claims were brought against the hotel, but insurance only paid out $350,000.  One hundred and nineteen died that morning, sixty-five were injured, and one hundred and twenty were rescued.

The Aftermath

President Harry S. Truman called a national conference on fire prevention in 1947 following the Winecoff Hotel fire as well as the La Salle Hotel fire in Chicago that occurred on June 5, 1946 with sixty-one fatalities and the Canfield Hotel fire in Dubuque, IA on June 19, 1946 with nineteen fatalities.  All of these fires highlighted the problems associated with unprotected stairs.

These fires made authorities realize that local officials could not be relied on to make responsible decisions about fire safety.  National safety codes were established and strictly enforced.  It also started a debate about ex-post-facto enforcement of new fire code requirements – something that we can relate to today.  This fire also encouraged many southern cities to order all existing buildings to be retrofitted and brought up to modern fire code within 7 days or be shut down.

The Winecoff fire led to the research into flammability of building materials into code requirements and design standards.  This research made them realize the existence of flashover as a means of fire propagation.

The flammable materials used as décor throughout the hotel spurred the Steiner Tunnel Test, which was used by the Underwriters Laboratories to establish the fire hazard of materials as stated in NFPA-255 standards of 1958.

Although the Winecoff Hotel fire was a tragedy, the 119 people who died that day did not die in vain.  Their sacrifice brought about important changes to fire code.


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