Atlanta’s Winecoff: Deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history, 75 years later

A historic marker stands in front of the old Winecoff Hotel (now the Ellis Hotel) with the Equitable Building soaring behind it on the left. The Winecoff burned on December 7, 1946, killing 119. It remains the country's worst hotel fire.
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A historic marker stands in front of the old Winecoff Hotel (now the Ellis Hotel) with the Equitable Building soaring behind it on the left. The Winecoff burned on December 7, 1946, killing 119. It remains the country's worst hotel fire.

Credit: AJC FILE PHOTO

Credit: AJC FILE PHOTO

There’s a reason that the death toll of the Winecoff hotel fire in 1946 has never been surpassed.

Immediately after the disaster that killed 119 people, cities across the country began to re-examine their fire codes.

In their definitive 1993 book, “The Winecoff Fire,” co-authors Sam Heys and Allen Goodwin point out that the blaze prompted new laws requiring sprinkler systems, fire escapes and fire doors.

“Within six months of the fire there was a national convention in Washington, D.C., on fire safety,” said Heys, a former writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, now retired from the Southern Company.

ExploreDEJA NEWS: Firefighters who battled 1946 Winecoff fire never forgot horrors they witnessed

Though advertised as “fireproof,” the Winecoff had neither sprinkler systems, fire escapes nor fire doors. Fire departments had ladders that could only reach to the seventh floor. The carnage among guests staying in rooms above the seventh floor increased dramatically, said Heys.

Guests in the higher floors attempted to lower themselves to the firefighters’ ladders by improvised ropes made out of sheets, but in the chaotic scene many of those efforts failed. “Some fell or were hit by another falling body as they got to the ladder,” said Heys.

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Sam Heys, a former writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is co-author of the definitive story of the country's worst hotel fire, "The Winecoff Fire." Photo: courtesy Sam Heys

Credit: Sam Heys

Sam Heys, a former writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is co-author of the definitive story of the country's worst hotel fire, "The Winecoff Fire." Photo: courtesy Sam Heys
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Sam Heys, a former writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is co-author of the definitive story of the country's worst hotel fire, "The Winecoff Fire." Photo: courtesy Sam Heys

Credit: Sam Heys

Credit: Sam Heys

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Allen B. Goodwin is co-author of the definitive story of the country's worst hotel fire, "The Winecoff Fire." Photo: courtesy Allen B. Goodwin

Credit: Allen B. Goodwin

Allen B. Goodwin is co-author of the definitive story of the country's worst hotel fire, "The Winecoff Fire." Photo: courtesy Allen B. Goodwin
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Allen B. Goodwin is co-author of the definitive story of the country's worst hotel fire, "The Winecoff Fire." Photo: courtesy Allen B. Goodwin

Credit: Allen B. Goodwin

Credit: Allen B. Goodwin

In their book, Heys and Goodwin present a terrifying, moment-by-moment account of the blaze, starting from the instant the elevator operator at the Winecoff smelled smoke, some time after 3:15 a.m. on Dec. 7.

The hotel was full that night, with 280 guests. Working from documents and painstaking research that revealed the residents of each room, the authors reconstruct the swift progress of the destruction, and the cowardice and bravery that resulted.

Though city inspectors theorized that the fire started from a cigarette carelessly tossed into a mattress, the authors 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.

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Photo from the Winecoff hotel fire in Atlanta, Ga. December 7, 1946. This photo shows the fire in progress, the fire eventually killed 119 people. The building is located at Ellis and Peachtree streets in downtown Atlanta. (AJC file)

Credit: AJC file

Photo from the Winecoff hotel fire in Atlanta, Ga. December 7, 1946. This photo shows the fire in progress, the fire eventually killed 119 people. The building is located at Ellis and Peachtree streets in downtown Atlanta. (AJC file)
caption arrowCaption
Photo from the Winecoff hotel fire in Atlanta, Ga. December 7, 1946. This photo shows the fire in progress, the fire eventually killed 119 people. The building is located at Ellis and Peachtree streets in downtown Atlanta. (AJC file)

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

One of the most remarkable stories captured in the book is of former Georgia Tech football player Jimmy Cahill, who not only saved himself and his wife, but returned to the building to save his mother.

After flunking out of Tech his freshman year, Cahill joined the service for the next six years, flying 53 missions in the Pacific as the navigator of a B-25. Cahill, in his early 20s, was back in Atlanta that evening, seeking to re-enter Tech, but the dean gave him little hope, suggesting that he get a job “digging ditches.”

After awakening in the midst of the inferno, Cahill got himself and his wife Doris down a ladder, then ran to the rear of the building to the alleyway between the Winecoff and the Mortgage Guarantee Building, ran inside that adjoining building and found a window that faced the window to his mother’s room across the alley.

There he saw a dazed Elizabeth Tarver crouched on the ledge outside room 620, a towel wrapped around her face to protect her from the smoke. Cahill borrowed a plank of wood from the basement of the Mortgage Guarantee, and with the help of the building’s chief engineer, pushed it across the alley, and rested its far edge on Tarver’s ledge.

Cahill inched across the 60-foot drop, one leg on each side of the plank, and turned around. His mother wrapped her arms around his neck and they inched back up the incline.

Firefighters, seeing Cahill’s inventive efforts, copied his idea, and dropped a ladder from the roof of the mortgage building to windows of the Winecoff, rescuing several people that way.

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"The Winecoff Fire," published in 1993, now has been updated with an e-book and an audio book. It spins a tense moment-by-moment account of the devastating inferno that claimed 119 lives.

Credit: Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin

"The Winecoff Fire," published in 1993, now has been updated with an e-book and an audio book. It spins a tense moment-by-moment account of the devastating inferno that claimed 119 lives.
caption arrowCaption
"The Winecoff Fire," published in 1993, now has been updated with an e-book and an audio book. It spins a tense moment-by-moment account of the devastating inferno that claimed 119 lives.

Credit: Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin

Credit: Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin

In an ironic footnote, the disaster also took the life of the building’s creator.

William Fleming Winecoff, the hotel’s developer, and his wife Grace, were in the 10th floor corner suite that evening. He had operated the business for two years after it opened, then leased it to the Meyer chain, with the stipulation that he be allowed to live there rent free.

“He died in a hallway and she on the sidewalk, after falling from a sheet rope,” wrote Heys and Goodwin.

“Both were 76.”

In contacting so many survivors for their book, Heys and Goodwin inadvertently helped to create a community. “After the book came out, the survivors wanted to meet these other people,” said Heys. “The families had been dispersed all over Southeast.”

ExploreSurvivors remember the Winecoff fire: 'We were all spared for a reason'

More than 50 came together for a ceremony at the Atlanta History Center when the book was published in 1993, and again in 1994. In 2006 a large group met for the 60th anniversary of the disaster. The following year the building, which had sat empty for years, was reopened as the Ellis Hotel.

Nearby stands a historical marker, explaining the horrific history of the site. 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.”

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