America’s deadliest hotel fire

America’s deadliest hotel fire

December 2021 marked the 75th anniversary of the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history – the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta. The hotel was full that night, with 280 guests and the fire killed 119 people.

In the same year 61 people lost their lives in the  La Salle Hotel  fire in Chicago and 19 fatalities were recorded in the  Canfield Hotel fire in  Dubuque, Iowa. As a result of these and other fatal hotel fires, changes were made to North American building codes affecting hotels and other public buildings including the requirement for multiple protected means of egress and self-closing fire-resistant doors for hotel guest rooms and eventually automatic sprinkler systems. Since the hotel fire was fed by combustible soft furnishing and wall coverings, new research began on determining the flammability of certain materials and the building codes were revised to include combustibility of interior materials.

The Winecoff Hotel opened in 1913 and was one of the tallest buildings in Atlanta with guest rooms from the
third through to the fifteenth floors, with fifteen rooms to each floor. The single stairway was not enclosed with fire-resistant doors and the bedroom doors had movable  transom  panels above each door for ventilation between the rooms and the corridors The hotel had a central fire alarm system and a  stand pipe  with hose racks at each floor but no automatic sprinklers system.

The source of the fire was a mattress on the third floor close to the stairway…. Possibly a carelessly discarded cigarette either dropped on the mattress or close by ignited the blaze which was noticed by a hotel staff member responding to a guest on the fifth floor and became trapped.  The building fire alarm was not sounded, although by that time no escape was possible from the upper floors in any case. 

The Winecoff was within two blocks of two  Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and firefighters arrived on scene within thirty seconds of the call. By which time people were already jumping from windows. Although the ladders only partially reached up the building, many survivors were rescued by them.

The fire spread through to the fourteenth and fifteenth floors. Guests opening windows seeking fresh air and rescue, introduced draughts of fresh air which fed the fire. The subsequent fire investigation revealed that an open transom was closely associated with the ignition of a given guest room and its contents.

The Atlanta Fire Department mustered 385 firefighters, 22 engine companies and 11 ladder trucks, four of which were aerial ladder units – none of which reached even half way up the building. Firefighters climbed adjoining buildings to fight the fire and rescue guests, including the 12-storey Mortgage Guarantee building across the 3 metre wide alley.

Although many of the dead suffocated in the fire, 32 victims escaped their rooms only to fall to their death… In some cases injuring firefighters as they fell. The occupants of the shuttered rooms were killed on every floor above the fifth floor.

In an ironic footnote, the disaster also took the life of the building’s creator and his wife who lived on the tenth floor.