Remembering the Winecoff Hotel fire

Credit: Allen Sullivan

Credit: Allen Sullivan

'We were all spared for a reason'

That chaotic night is still seared in Margaret Foster's memory, 60 years later.

Foster and her husband, Warren, stood helplessly at a fifth-floor window of the Winecoff Hotel while smoke filled the hotel room. In her arms, Margaret Foster held their 1-year-old daughter, Connie.

"All the people on the street said, 'Get that baby, ' " recalled Margaret Foster, now 82 and living in McDonough. Atlanta firefighter Rick Roberts scaled a ladder, reached out, embraced Connie and carried her to safety.

The Fosters followed Roberts down the ladder, and to this day Margaret Foster thinks Connie helped save their lives by attracting rescuers' attention.

On Sunday, Connie Foster Broom reached across six decades to embrace the man who saved her.

"We were all spared for a reason. I know God has used my parents, " Broom, of Austell, told a crowd gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of the blaze. Then, turning to Roberts, she said, "And I'd just like to give you a hug."

"I was just doing my job --- that's all, " Roberts said. "I think somebody watched over everybody."

More than 50 fire survivors, family members of victims and members of the Atlanta Fire Department gathered Sunday at the Spotted Dog Tavern to remember the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history. Sixty years ago, the tavern was an Atlanta fire station that sent trucks to the fire.

The Winecoff survivors get together occasionally to share stories and memories. On Sunday, those stories tumbled out in a sometimes emotional rush.

Ed Williams was 17 when he and his family traveled from the South Georgia town of Cordele to Atlanta to see the hit Disney movie "Song of the South."

"You could hear firetrucks downstairs, folks screaming, " Williams said. "You couldn't see the street when you looked out the window, and when I turned on the light in the room, all I could see was a small glow."

He kept leaning out the window of the 15th-floor room of the Winecoff.

"It was so hot in there, the small of my back was blistering, " he said. "If ever a drop of water hit you --- man, it felt so good!"

Williams survived, but six members of his family died --- including his mother and 9-year-old sister.

"I didn't want to talk about it for years and years and years, " said Williams, who still lives in Cordele. "When I started [attending the gatherings] it bothered me a lot [to talk]---it bothered me so bad."

Some of the guests leaped to their deaths because fire rescue ladders could not reach all floors and there was a lack of fire escapes, fire doors and automatic sprinklers.

Among the dead were 30 high school students attending a state meeting of the Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y service organizations, plus hotel owner William F. Winecoff and his wife.

The cause of the early morning fire is still disputed. Fire officials said a cigarette on a mattress started the blaze. But Sam Heys and Allen Goodwin, authors of "The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire, " say a Fayette County man set the fire to get revenge against an enemy who was playing in an all-night poker game at the hotel.

Next year, after standing vacant for two decades, the 93-year-old building that housed the hotel is to reopen as the boutique-style Ellis Hotel. Between the fire and the renovation, the building served as apartments for seniors and was a hotel under other names.

Before the renovations, Mimi Minor Duncan went to the 14th floor, where her mother, Mary Minor, a high school teacher from Thomaston, died along with four students. The bodies were found lying across the bed with their Bibles open to the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, which starts with the words: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God."

"Each one of these [gatherings] is a little more healing, " said Duncan, who was thankful her family always spoke about her mother and the fire.

Aubrey Morris, who covered the fire as a young reporter for The Atlanta Journal and later was a leading Atlanta radio broadcaster, said he was glad to hear the historic marker detailing the tragedy will be back in its place once the Ellis opens. "It's so easy to rewrite history and pretend that it doesn't exist, " he said.