A review of the news that made The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s front pages through the decades.

Today’s AJC Deja News comes to you from the Saturday, Dec. 8, 1946, edition of The Atlanta Constitution.

Atlanta mayor-elect Andre Dickens says public safety is his first priority. It’s a theme he reiterated throughout his campaign.

“We will not have a prosperous or equitable Atlanta until we have a safe Atlanta,” Dickens told the Journal-Constitution when he announced his candidacy in May.

Crime may be foremost in the minds of residents, but enforcing and updating codes and statutes is an essential part of keeping the public safe, too. The 75th anniversary of the Winecoff Hotel fire serves as a sobering reminder that when safety standards, such as fire codes, are lacking, tragedy may result.

ExploreINTERVIEW: The AJC's Bo Emerson talks with Sam Heys, co-author of "The Winecoff Fire"

The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department serves a population of nearly 500,000 in an area covering 135.7 square miles. And its firefighters witness their share of tragedy. The 1946 Winecoff fire remains a particularly grisly chapter in the department’s long history.

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Readers awoke to a grim Dec. 8 edition of the Constitution as the horrific facts of the Winecoff Fire from the previous night dominated the front page.

Credit: AJC PRINT ARCHIVES

Readers awoke to a grim Dec. 8 edition of the Constitution as the horrific facts of the Winecoff Fire from the previous night dominated the front page.

Credit: AJC PRINT ARCHIVES

caption arrowCaption
Readers awoke to a grim Dec. 8 edition of the Constitution as the horrific facts of the Winecoff Fire from the previous night dominated the front page.

Credit: AJC PRINT ARCHIVES

Credit: AJC PRINT ARCHIVES

MORE DEJA NEWS>> Check out what we’ve covered before (and again)

The late R.B. Sprayberry fought the Winecoff Hotel fire in 1946 and, according to his son, never spoke of that Dec. 7 night again.

"My dad wouldn't talk. Period," Richard Sprayberry told the AJC's Bill Torpy after his father's death in April 2018.

Still the nation’s deadliest hotel fire, the blaze killed 119 of the hotel’s 304 guests, injuring 65. Among the dead were William and Grace Winecoff, the hotel’s original owners.

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Atlanta firefighters remove bodies from the Winecoff Hotel on Dec. 7, 1946. The fire killed 119 people.

Atlanta firefighters remove bodies from the Winecoff Hotel on Dec. 7, 1946. The fire killed 119 people.

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Atlanta firefighters remove bodies from the Winecoff Hotel on Dec. 7, 1946. The fire killed 119 people.

Graphic details of the previous night’s death and horror filled the Dec. 8 Constitution.

“In the most disastrous hotel fire in the nation’s history, rescue workers have counted at least 114 persons dead ... in the wake of raging flames which turned the Winecoff Hotel into a roaring inferno early Saturday,” reporter Keeler McCartney wrote. “Fire officials had no explanation for the cause of the fire 10 hours after the hotel was gutted.”

“If there is a fire escape on that hotel, my men couldn’t find it,” Atlanta Fire Chief Charles Styron told the paper.

“Firefighters saved hotel guests by hoisting ladders from the sidewalks, by stretching out nets to catch falling bodies from the lower floors, by running up steps to carry people out,” Torpy wrote in 2018. “Most ingenious were the firefighters who made it to the roof of the nearby Mortgage Guarantee Building, plopped a ladder across a 10-foot alley to the 14th floor of the Winecoff, and saved many more lives.”

AJC FLASHBACK PHOTOS>> Atlanta fires, fire stations and firefighters

MORE PHOTOS>> The Winecoff Hotel’s new life as The Ellis

Firefighters’ memories of the 1946 Winecoff fire were particularly gruesome.

“One of my uncles (who was a fireman) told me the water running down the sidewalk was red because of all the blood. People were hanging from sheets screaming. It was traumatic,” Richard Sprayberry said.

Some 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. After the Winecoff fire, cities across the U.S. reviewed their fire codes, strengthening them in hopes of preventing similar disasters.

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A photo from one of the guest rooms inside the Winecoff Hotel after the deadly fire.

Credit: AJC FILE

A photo from one of the guest rooms inside the Winecoff Hotel after the deadly fire.

Credit: AJC FILE

caption arrowCaption
A photo from one of the guest rooms inside the Winecoff Hotel after the deadly fire.

Credit: AJC FILE

Credit: AJC FILE

Some 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. After the Winecoff fire, cities across the U.S. reviewed their fire codes, strengthening them in hopes of preventing similar disasters.

Former Atlanta Fire Chief David Chamberlain, with the department from 1966-94, says “On the job you see some bad stuff. Nowadays you hear a lot about PTSD. In those days you had to be able to handle it. The saying was you need ice water in your veins. Suck it up and get the job done.”

— NOTE: Parts of this story were researched in 2019.

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In this series, we scour the AJC archives for the most interesting news from days gone by, show you the original front page and update the story.

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