A beautiful, new boutique hotel called The Ellis on Peachtree has just opened in downtown Atlanta, across from the Ritz Carlton.
I recall walking along famous Peachtree Street in 1994 and noticing a newly erected historical marker in front of the empty building that was once the scene of the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history.
The marker detailed how a predawn fire at The Winecoff Hotel had claimed the lives of 119 persons decades ago. The 15-story high-rise had no escape stairs or ladders, much less a sprinkler system. Many jumped from the upper floors to escape the smoke and flames, or in failed attempts to reach a neighboring building.
Among the 280 guests registered at the Winecoff for the night of Dec. 7, 1946, 40 were teens participating in a mock legislative event at the state capitol, sponsored by the YMCA. Some of them perished.
The tragedy impacted rural communities and small towns all across the state that lost some of their brightest young persons.
Noting that the fire had occurred in 1946, I jotted a note to myself to give the event fuller attention in a couple of years when the half-century anniversary came.
So, in 1996, I wrote a package of stories for The Christian Index about the impact of that horrific event. It was an emotional effort for so many I spoke with who suffered loss on that day.
Truett Gannon, then pastor of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., and now a recently retired professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, was a 16-year-old participant in the Y-Club event who was awakened in a neighboring hotel to witness the tragedy firsthand.
His experience with a close friend who was injured in the fire and lost several family members, and a sense of helplessness in relating to those impacted by the fire had a life-changing impact on him that memorable day.
It was a story Truett felt to be “too sacred” and “too personal” to tell often. So I was grateful when he emotionally told it me and those who read what I had written.
He recalled returning to his hometown that fateful evening and meeting with God at Cordele’s “big ditch” where he committed himself to ministry.
“All of a sudden, it made sense to me that the way to deal with death was to tell the story of Christ,” the veteran pastor told me as he reflected on that pivotal moment in his life.
Looking back over 50 years of ministry, he confessed: “My assessment of my own ministry is that, in the Lord, I’m at my best when I’m helping people deal with death. From that experience, Christ is so real… Standing beside people when [death] happens is where I’ve had my best ministry.”
Ironically, an ad in the Index during the very week of the deadly fire proclaimed the Winecoff to be “absolutely fireproof.” And it didn’t burn down. The loss was the precious lives of many within its strong walls.
The tragedy resulted in many of the fire safety practices required in multi-storied buildings around the world today.
After the fire, the Winecoff building struggled to find new life in an otherwise bustling part of downtown Atlanta. After a failed attempt as a reopened hotel, the property was given to the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1967 and served as housing for older adults for several years before being sold.
When the Olympics were in town in 1996, the lobby of the well-worn hotel served as a souvenir pin-trading business while a neglected real estate sign hung outside.
After several failed initiatives, a new hotel (with multiple fire safety features)has opened. The 15-story building — the tallest hotel in the city in 1946 — seems nearly hidden among its towering neighbors today.
Perhaps it will not only host visitors to Atlanta in the years to come, but serve as a tribute to those whose lives were cut short on that tragic day in December 1946, and be a testimony to the eternal truths that the old can become new, and that life can follow death.