WineCoff Hotel Fire

8 August 2016

Would you stay in a hotel that advertises “absolutely fireproof”? The average person would say yes, most people think “It can’t get any safer than absolutely fireproof can it? ” Well there was a problem December 7th 1946, when the Winecoff Hotel caught on fire. Opened in 1913 as the tallest building in Atlanta, Georgia. Built with a steel-framed structure making the owner think it was fireproof, but it wasn’t. History of the Winecoff Hotel, now known as the Ellis Hotel The steel-framed structure was built on a small lot, with about 4,386 feet per floor.

Guest rooms extended from the third to the fifteenth floors, with around fifteen rooms on each floor. Corridors on guest floors were set up in an H-shape, with two elevators and upward flights of stairs opening into the cross halls, and opposing downward runs of stairs converging on a single landing from the legs of the H.

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The stairway of non-combustible construction, was not enclosed with fire-resistant doors. In taller buildings multiple stairways were becoming common practices.

Atlanta building code of 1911 permitted building lots of less than 5,000 square feet to have a single stairway. The steel structure of the building was protected by structural clay tile and concrete fireproofing. Interior partions of the building were made of hollow clay tile covered with plaster. Room doors were wood, with movable transom panels above each door for ventilation. The hotel room’s walls were finished with painted burlap fabric extending to the ceiling. Guest rooms were finished with as many as seven layers of wallpaper.

The hotel did have a central fire alarm system, manually operated from the front desk, and a standpipe with hose racks at each floor, but there was no automatic sprinkler system. The fire’s point of origin was on the third floor west hallway, where a mattress and chair had supposly been temporarily placed in the corridor, close to the stairway to the fourth floor. One theory is that someone dropped a cigarette may have ignited the mattress or other combustibles in the corridor. The fire was first noticed around 3:15 a. m.

By a bellboy who had gone to the fifth floor to help a guest, becoming trapped there. The first (and only) call to the fire department was made at 3:42 a. m. by the night manager. The manager attempted to warn guests by telephone about the fire, but the building fire alarm was not sounded. By the time the manager attempted to make phone calls to guests there was no escape possible from the upper floors in any case. The first engine and ladder companies arrived within thirty seconds of the call, by that time people were already jumping from windows.

Fire department ladders could extend only part way up the building, but many guests were rescued in that manner. Ladders were placed horizontally across the alley from an adjoining building, allowing some rescues to be effective. Fire spread was hampered by the stair arrangement, while the stairs were not closed off by doors, the configuration placed ascending and descending runs around the corner from each other, keeping fire and hot gas from quickly ascending the stairs. Also, fire did not spread through the enclosed elevator shafts, laundry chutes, nor the mail chute.

The fire fed on the burlap wallcoverings and ignited room doors. Doors and transoms were burned through on all but the fourteenth and fifteenth floors. Guests opened windows seeking fresh air and rescue, allowing fresh air to make the fire bigger. The fire investigation revealed that an open transom was closely associated with the ignition of a given guest room and its contents. Firefighters were hampered and in some cases injured, by falling bodies. Many guests tied bed sheets together and tried to descend.

The Atlanta fire department mustered 385 firefighters, 22 engine companies and 11 ladder trucks, four of which were aerial ladder units at the Winecoff Hotel fire. A second alarm was sounded at 3:44 a. m. and a third at 3:49 a. m. with a general alarm (all available unites respond, including off duty personnel) at 4:02 a. m Mutual aid from surrounding departments brought a total of 49 pieces of equipment. Firefighters climbed adjoining buildings to fight the fire and rescue guests, including a 12-story building across the 10-foot wide alley, and a six-story building on the opposite side of the street.

Of the 304 guests in the hotel, 119 died, 65 were injured, and 120 were rescued uninjured. The hotel’s originals owners lived in an apartment attached to the hotel, they also died in the fire. 32 of the deaths were among those who jumped, or fell while trying to descend ropes made of sheets tied together. Among the hotel guests were forty high school students on a state YMCA of Georgia sponsored trip to Atlanta, 30 of whom died. A national conference on fire prevention was called in 1947 at the calling of U. S. President Harry S.

Truman in response to the La Salle and Winecoff fires. La Salle fire happened June 5, 1946 months earlier than the Winecoff fire. These fires highlighted the problems associated with unprotected stair openings, which provided paths for the spread of smoke and fire, preventing the use of the stairs for escape. The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) Building Exit code of 1927 had already set forth principles requiring the use of multiple, protected means of egress, this was further revised to allow the code to be incorporated as law.

The Winecoff fire led to the incorporation of research into flammability of building materials into code requirements and design standards. At this meeting, automatic fire alarm systems and automatic sprinkler systems were talked about. As seen in this paper the Winecoff Hotel was not “absolutely fireproof”, it’s sad these events have to happen so the NFPA can see the code changes we need. Events like these shouldn’t have to happen for the NFPA to see the results of what needs changed.

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