Originally created 12/07/96

Hotel fire still burns in local memory 50 years later

Richard Muns of Augusta was just a kid when Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel burned 50 years ago this morning, killing 119 people in America's deadliest hotel fire.

Images of that horrible event lived on, however, through his father and uncle, who survived the pre-dawn blaze by shimmying down the 15-story building on bed sheets.

Mr. Muns, now 59, recalls the reluctant accounts that his father, Robert, and uncle, Eves, gave of the blaze, which occurred when the two Augusta plumbers - now deceased - were in Atlanta overnight on business.

They woke up to the sirens. They heard the screams, an explosion and remember a doomed little girl who struck them as she fell several stories to her death on the street below.

"I think back and am thankful he was able to get out," said Mr. Muns. "He was able to live and we were able to share some things in life."

The Winecoff, built in 1913, was billed as "absolutely fireproof" but lacked such safety features as a fire escape or fire doors. The 150-room hotel was filled to capacity when the pre-dawn fire erupted.

Today, the Winecoff is a decaying, vacant building at the downtown corner of Peachtree and Ellis streets. But around 3:40 a.m. a half-century ago it woke up a city with flames and the sirens that followed.

Many died from smoke inhalation, others fell or were burned. About 160 guests escaped, but one of Atlanta's tallest buildings at the time was a firetrap. There were no fire escapes or sprinklers. And few safety codes.

At the time, it was the worst hotel fire in world history. News of the fire made front pages across the country and was the top story on the radio airwaves.

The euphoria of winning the war was still fresh and the fire occurred on the fifth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Winecoff disaster had a lasting effect because it spawned better fire codes and safer buildings, said Allen Goodwin, co-author, with Sam Heys, of the 1993 book, The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire.

But the more ominous question of how the blaze started remained a public mystery for years after the blaze, Mr. Goodwin said. The official version was that it began on the third floor when a cigarette smoldered in a mattress.

Mr. Goodwin said the overwhelming evidence points to arson, but that possibility was never investigated thoroughly by authorities.

Two of the hotel victims were prominent Thomson citizens, Peter Knox Sr., and his wife Gertrude. They had gone to the Atlanta for a doctor's appointment. He was 78; she was 68.

It was a seemingly trivial stroke of bad luck that placed them at the Winecoff. The couple's reservations at another hotel fell through and they booked a room in the doomed hotel at the last minute.

Mr. Knox - a former Thomson city councilman - and his wife suffocated in Room 1218. Another Thomson citizen, Robert Fluker, 41, was staying at the hotel on separate business and died in the fire.

The Knox's daughter-in-law, Ruth Knox, recalls how news of the fire rocked the small town.

"It was almost like they were heading up to Atlanta on a second honeymoon," she said. "They were smiling. What happened was just terrible. The whole town was in shock." In the half-century since, the Knox family has rarely discussed the fire, she said.

Mrs. Knox won't be going to the ceremony scheduled today in Atlanta to honor those whose lives the fire changed. But she recalls walking by the old structure a few years back - and remembers the memories the building evoked.

"It was an eerie feeling to stand on that corner and look up at the building," Mrs. Knox said. "What happened there was so terrible."


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