Clarence Luther Leathers Sr., 96: Firefighter on scene of the Winecoff Hotel fire

Clarence Leathers Sr. responded to numerous calls as a city of Atlanta firefighter.

He talked about some fires, but there was one he seldom mentioned: the 1946 Winecoff  Hotel fire in which 119 people lost their lives. Leathers, assigned to station No. 10, saw people leap to their deaths. He smelled burning flesh and heard cries for help.

The 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire haunted Clarence Luther Leathers Sr.

Credit: Family photo

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Credit: Family photo

"Daddy said he couldn't eat for two weeks after that fire," said a son, Charles Leathers of Douglasville. "That fire was something he wouldn't talk about and when he would, he wouldn't give you many details. I've seen books and pictures of it, so I know it was horrible."

The so-called "fireproof" hotel at Peachtree and Ellis streets caught fire at 3:42 a.m., on Dec. 7. Mr. Leathers told relatives how he and another firefighter made their way to the second floor of the 15-story building. A man and a woman were trying to escape.

"Wait here," the firefighters told them.

Instead, the man jumped out the window.

"Daddy never understood why he did that," his son said.

Mr. Leathers lived in Douglasville, but had recently moved to Hollywood, Fla., to be near his daughter. On Saturday, Clarence Luther Leathers Sr.died of natural causes at Mercy Hospital in Miami. He was 96. The funeral will be 11 a.m. today in the chapel of Whitley-Garner at Rosehaven Funeral Home in Douglasville.

Mr. Leathers was born in Paulding County, the son of the late Minnie Mobley and Thomas Henry Leathers. His mother died from the Spanish flu when he was a toddler so he and another sibling lived with relatives in Atlanta.

His 28 years with the fire department were interrupted once, when he joined the Navy during World War II. He retired in 1966, then worked as a U.S. mail carrier in East Point.

Mr. Leathers came from a family of public servants. His father had been an Atlanta police officer; an uncle and brother had been city firefighters.

"City work was in the blood," his son said.

Mr. Leathers' first wife, Vera Sawyer Leathers, died in 1973. Evelyn Defoor Leathers, his second wife, died in 1976.

Mr. Leathers like to read history books and westerns. His favorite author was Louis L'Amour, who wrote about the American frontier.

Years after the Winecoff  fire, Mr. Leathers still harbored disturbing memories of  the tragedy.  Sometimes he would wake up at night to what he thought was the smell of charred flesh and the sounds of bones popping.

"He kept pretty quiet about that fire," his son said. "Others, he'd talk about."

Additional survivors include another son, Clarence Leathers of  Fayetteville; a daughter, Vera Ruth Ankrumof  Hollywood, Fla.; a brother, Beacher Leathers of  Conyers; 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.