Chattanoogan Was Among Victims Of Winecoff Hotel Fire 60 Years Ago

  • Thursday, December 7, 2006
  • John Shearer

Although this Dec. 7 marks the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it also marks the 60th anniversary of another horrific event much closer to home – the tragic Winecoff Hotel fire of Dec. 7, 1946, in Atlanta.

On that early Saturday morning of long ago, flames raced through the 15-story Peachtree Street hotel and killed 119 people. To this day, it remains the worst hotel fire in U.S. history based on number of lives lost. The tragedy also resulted in stricter fire codes.

Chattanoogans and area residents were among the victims and survivors. Twenty-year-old Scenic City resident Edith Burch, who was on her second honeymoon, died after falling more than 10 floors and breaking both her legs.

She had been trying to get from one window to another when the makeshift rope she had made out of linen tore. She survived initially, but later died.

Her husband survived the fire, as did another Chattanoogan, who had been in Atlanta making plans to attend Emory University.

The T.L. Lambert Sr. family of Dalton, Ga., was also in the hotel while taking their daughter to a dance in Atlanta. In a 1986 interview on the occasion of the 40th anniversary, Mrs. Lambert recalled that they had been on the fifth floor and were fortunately among the first rescued by some firemen using a fire ladder.

She remembered that they had been awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of people screaming. “It has been so long ago. But it has always been in the back of my mind,” she recalled in 1986.

A Ducktown, Tn., woman in Atlanta to go Christmas shopping with her sister was also killed.

That night all 194 rooms were being occupied by some 280 guests who were in town to shop, do business, or simply visit. A number of delegates to the Georgia Youth Assembly were also in the hotel, which had promoted itself as being fireproof.

It had been built in 1913 and in 1946 was considered one of the nicer hotels in town, although it was not as big as some.

Every available firefighter and piece of firefighting equipment in Atlanta was called to the scene that tragic morning. Although the firefighters did have a net, many hotel guests ended up jumping to their deaths in panic.

A photograph of one woman falling to the ground, which had been taken by a Georgia Tech student, won a Pulitzer Prize.

1968 McCallie School alumnus Sam Heys, who became a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ended up co-writing a book in 1993 about the tragedy. He recalled in 1996 that a subsequent gathering among survivors and firemen ended up serving as a great time of healing, as many realized they shared similar feelings of loss and guilt.

A 60th anniversary gathering was also held at a North Avenue tavern, which was formerly a fire hall.

One survivor of the tragedy has been the hotel itself. It was later turned into a senior citizens apartment, but became vacant in 1981.

Although talk of razing the structure surfaced, it continued to stand idle as much larger buildings went up around it.

But in recent months, work has started on turning it into the Ellis Hotel on Peachtree Street. The exterior is being returned to its 1946 look, but the inside has been gutted to make larger rooms. It is scheduled to reopen next August.

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