Today’s AJC Deja News comes to you from the Saturday, Dec. 8, 1946, edition of The Atlanta Constitution.
Firefighters have never had an easy job, and aren’t particularly well paid for saving lives. Atlanta firefighters, set to receive a 3.1 percent raise, have been promised an additional pay hike.
“I can’t say that all of the details have been worked out,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in early November. “But it will happen, and it will happen soon.”
The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department serves a population of nearly 500,000 in an area covering 135.7 square miles. In 2017, it responded to more than 100,000 calls. And its firefighters do this for a starting salary of around $40,000.
They also witness their share of tragedy. The 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire remains a particularly grisly chapter in the department’s long history.
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.
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.”
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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.
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.”
For its part, Atlanta Fire is actively engaging the next generation of potential recruits through its Essentials of Fire and Emergency Services class at Therrell High School. Students combine classroom work with hands-on training as they learn about the values essential in fighting fires and serving the public.
“It’s more than just climbing ladders and putting out fires,” DeiAndre Penny, Class of 2019, told the AJC’s Raisa Habersham. “It’s about tending to your community and making sure they’re safe.”
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