December 7, 1946
The Winecoff Hotel catches on fire, killing 119 and injuring over 90
The 15-story Winecoff Hotel was advertised as “fireproof,” owing to its steel construction. The walls and other interior components were still made of combustible materials, however. It was opened in 1913, and building codes in 1912 allowed for buildings under 5,000 square feet to have only a single staircase, and the Winecoff’s builders opted not to add any additional.
The cause of the fire is unknown, though it was determined to have started on the third floor and was first noticed by a bellhop at approximately 3:15 a.m. when smoke filled the hallway. The fire department wasn’t called until 3:42 a.m., by which point the fire had spread to several of the other floors, and the fire truck’s ladder could only reach the seventh floor. Further complicating issues was the single staircase which had been made impassable by fire. When hotel guests fled their respective floors, the added oxygen from open doors into the staircase fueled the flames, and the use of wooden doors rather than metal offered little resistance to the blaze.
Over a hundred died in the fire, either by burning or smoke inhalation. A pair of sisters visiting Atlanta for Christmas shopping, accompanied by their children, were among those killed. Only one of the five children, whose ages ranged from 3 to 13, survived. Among the other survivors was Charles Boschung Jr., who was in the hotel with his new bride; the pair had wed November 30. Mrs. Boschung was killed when a falling body knocked her from the ladder during her rescue.
Another survivor was the 100-pound, 60-year-old operator of the hotel’s cigar counter, Mrs. Banks Whiteman. Whiteman was awoken by screams and assisted the woman who shared her room, a handicapped woman identified as Mrs. Arthur Geele Sr., to a smokeless corner of their living room before noticing a woman and her children were in danger on the floor below. Whiteman fashioned a rope from a sheet and pulled Mrs. Arthur Geele Jr. — presumably the daughter-in-law of the woman she shared a room with — and her children John (14) and Esther (6) to the floor above before she helped an unidentified 180 lbs. man up as well. The occupants of the lower floor were not in danger of flames but the smoke would have been deadly.
One famous hotel guest was a woman who jumped from the building’s eleventh floor and landed on the marquee. She was captured on film by 24-year-old grad students Arnold Hardy who took her photo as she fell (pictured, right), earning him a Pulitzer Prize.
After taking the shot, Hardy noticed a police officer and firefighter attempting to read the contact information from a nearby drugstore with the hopes of asking the manager for medical supplies to assist the victims. Hardy suggested they break a window to read the number more easily and offered to pay for the damages, but the emergency services personnel refused. Hardy broke a door anyway and was promptly arrested for disorderly conduct. The drugstore owner refused to appear in court against Hardy and declined the $9.50 Hardy offered to pay for the broken door.
Hardy attempted to find out the fate of the woman and visited the hospital, only to learn from an Associated Press reporter the woman didn’t want to be known as “the jumping woman” — presumably due to her exposed underwear in the widely-distributed photograph, which would have been highly scandalous at the time. She was later identified as Daisy McCumber, who endured extensive injuries from her fall: a broken pelvis, back, and ribs; a fractured hand; compound fractures to both legs, resulting in one being amputated; and a brain injury. McCumber passed away in 1992.
The fire at the Winecoff led to increased safety regulations, including more fire escape routes and self-closing fire doors to inhibit the spread of fires in stairwells.
“Major American Fires: Winecoff Hotel Fire- 1946.” Massasoit Community College. Accessed: December 7, 2019. https://library.massasoit.edu/americanfires/winecoff
“Winecoff Hotel Fire.” Today in Georgia History. Accessed: December 7, 2019. https://www.todayingeorgiahistory.org/content/winecoff-hotel-fire
“Pulitzer Prize-winning photo puts amateur in spotlight.” Pensacola News Journal. January 16, 2000
“Student Who Took Fire Photo Held In Misconduct.” New Era [Lancaster, Pennsylvania]. December 10, 1946
“Mothers, Sisters, Die With Children.” The Chattanooga Times. December 9, 1946
“Survivors of Fire Describe Rescues.” The Chattanooga Times. December 9, 1946
“Operator Escapes Blaze, Saves Five.” Chattanooga Times. December 9, 1946