SFPE recognizes 60th anniversary of Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel fire

With only five flashbulbs, Georgia Tech student Arnold Hardy used his last one to capture this photo of a woman leaping from the Winecoff Hotel fire. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the early morning hours of December 7, 1946 a fire at Downtown Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel left 119 people dead and 90 people injured. This fire, which occurred 60 years ago, is still the deadliest hotel fire in the history of the United States.

“A flawed building design was a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries,” said Chris Jelenewicz, Engineering Program Manager with the Bethesda, Maryland-Based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Additionally, since the building was constructed of non-combustible materials, the building was mistakenly thought to be fireproof. This gave the building owners and occupants a false sense of security.”

At the time of the fire, the Hotel Winecoff had only one exit stairway available for occupants to escape the upper floors of the 15 story building. The doors to this stairway were not fire-rated and many of the doors were left open. “Once the fire started on the third floor, the stairway effectively became a chimney — allowing the smoke and fire to spread quickly up this stair and throughout the upper floors,” said Jelenewicz.

Many of the hotel guests died in their sleep. Because the stairway was inaccessible, other occupants chose to jump to their deaths. Others died by trying to escape the building while climbing down a makeshift escape line made out of bed sheets.

Additional contributing factors to the number of deaths and injuries included combustible interior finishes, a delay in calling the fire department, and the lack of a fire alarm and automatic fire suppression system.

Included in the death toll were 30 teenagers who were part a Youth Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol. The teenagers were visiting from cities and towns all across the State of Georgia and were taking part in a “mock” legislative session.

As a result of this fire, many building and fire codes were enhanced to make buildings including hotels safer from fire. Some of the enhancements in the building and fire codes included provisions for improved exiting systems, safer interior finishes, and the installation of fire alarm and automatic fire suppression systems.

“The Winecoff Hotel Fire reminds us of the danger that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that are safe from fire,” said Jelenewicz. “The fact of the matter, however, is that today hotels are now much better protected. This is in large part due to the fire-safety strategies and systems designed by fire protection engineers that make people and property safer from fire.”

A historic marker stands at the corner of Peachtree Street and Ellis Streets in Downtown Atlanta at the site of the Winecoff Hotel fire to commemorate the 119 lives that were lost that morning.