My father, Ralph E. Johnson, worked for the Associated Press and was transferred to Atlanta from New York in July of 1945 to be the photo editor for the southeast region of the U.S.
I recall the telephone call that awakened us when he was called in to work in the early morning hours because of the Winecoff Hotel fire. It was he who authorized the purchase of Arnold Hardy's photo of the woman leaping from the hotel that was later to win the Pulitzer prize. Arnold Hardy visited our home on at least one occasion and I recall meeting him.
Having said all that, however, it was the pile of very graphic photos that dad brought home that I remember most to this day. Unfortunately (or fortunately) those photos are now long gone. The images will remain with me always. I cannot imagine anyone choosing to stay in that new hotel, regardless of its upgrades, out of sheer memory of those who needlessly perished.
I just wanted to pass along some memories of that event, even if only second hand in some cases.
Stephen D. Johnson
Dear Mr. Johnson,
Thank you for your e-mail.
Thanks also for the additional details about your dad, Ralph E. Johnson. My own father, Atlanta Journal reporter George Goodwin was also called to the fire scene by telephone. It was his recollections that first inspired our book: The Winecoff Fire.
I am familiar with many of the photos you mentioned. During the civil trial that took place two years after the fire, the judge deemed at least one photo too graphic to show to the jury. I can fully understand how they've stuck with you. They stick with me too.
As shocking as many of the Winecoff photos are, they have played a vital role in piecing together the puzzle of the Winecoff fire. Please keep us in mind if any of your father's photos or notes ever resurface. Several mysteries still remain.
I can also understand your sense of uneasiness about anyone choosing to stay in the Winecoff Hotel building, despite its refurbishments. We've heard that from others, particularly eyewitnesses. We haven't heard it so much from the survivors themselves.
Here is our view of the hotel's re-opening:
First, we have little to gain. Our book is now out of print and we've never had any monetary interest in the property. We are, however, abundantly pleased that the building will remain standing. Here's why.
Many of our readers have told us that even before finishing our book, they were compelled to visit the the building, to see for themselves the site of the fire. It gives them perspective to follow our narrative. They can see, for instance, the tiny ledge that Reid & Cary Horne walked along - sidestepping all the way - toward the relative safety of room 1610-12.
They gauge for themselves the temptation that overcame so many guests who attempted to leap across the ten foot alleyway to the Mortgage Guarantee Building. They see the sheer height of the hotel and realize the danger some guests undertook by attempting escapes via sheet-ropes. All in all, our book is easier to follow if the reader has actually seen the building. While it's still standing, they still can.
More importantly: As all of our readers know, we are convinced that the Winecoff Hotel was intentionally set ablaze. We do ascribe to a favored theory but no final and indisputable explanation has ever been agreed upon. As long as the building is there, the questions of who, why and how will linger and the simple answers are more likely reveal themselves. To us, it's still a crime scene.
Most important: There are other reasons we are glad the building still stands. The Winecoff fire was the third major hotel fire to occur in 1946. Thanks to that timing and the photograph your father conveyed to the world, public opinion finally galvanized. The call for fire safety code reform became so strong that President Truman convened a national conference on fire safety in May of 1947. That resulted in sweeping code enhancements. The fact that the Winecoff Hotel fire remains America's deadliest hotel fire is testament to its impact.
We feel a measure of thanks is due to those who died in the fire for the improved fire safety features that we all rely on in high rise buildings today. If the Winecoff Hotel building is ever torn down, the gift from those who perished there might sooner be forgotten.
Mr. Johnson, many share your uneasiness about the hotel's renewal. The new owners know that. They also appear to understand stewardship. The memory of the fallen deserves special care. Let's hope they're up to it.
Letters such as yours are always welcome. Thanks again. You've provided another valuable piece of information about one of the world's most tragic and impactful events. We are pleased to share it.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Dear Mr. Goodwin,
My memory is not of the fire itself, rather memories of a young boy. I was born 1938 in Quincy, Florida: population less than 8,000. Going from a small southern town to a city the size of Atlanta for me was like going to see the Wizard of Oz.
My father was in the Navy and being permanently assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. He, my mother and I drove from Quincy and spent the night of December 31, 1944 in the Winecoff Hotel. It was dark by the time we arrived in Atlanta, and I have some memories of him becoming frustrated by driving around and around looking for the hotel.
The next memory is walking into a small bedroom and my father becoming irate because the room wasn't clean. Cigarette butts were in the ash tray and there was "something" about the waste basket that really irritated him. For some reason, mother didn't want me to look into the waste basket. I didn't know why but I now believe there were empty liquor bottles in it. He demanded the hotel staff come and clean the room. The reason all this sticks in my mind is: this was the first time in my life I'd ever stayed in a hotel!
Another indelible memory which helps me know the exact date we stayed there is the noise I heard from the street below. Sirens, whistles, kleg lights, a mob scene, etc. Mother opened the window and I looked down (probably from the 8th or 9th floor), and saw a sea of humanity on the street, yelling and screaming. My impression was they were all crazy people!
Mother told me, "It's New Year's Eve"! She might as well been telling a Martian the news - I had no idea in the world, at 6-1/2 years old, what a "New Year's Eve" was!
Next morning we ate breakfast in the coffee shop, and I must have had a cold because mother swiped a spoon so she could later in the car give me doses of cough syrup. That spoon was "special" for so many years, especially after the fire, but regretfully got misplaced in one of my several moves made over the years.
Two years later, 1946, and eight years old, I can distinctly remember the large photos in the newspaper, especially of the woman leaping from her hotel room. I'm sure at the time and as someone young reaching that point in development of storing memories in one's mind, the events of the Winecoff were my first introduction into the tragedies of life.
My captivation with the tragedy over the past 61 years has not diminished and I've already booked a room to revisit the hotel that's now the Ellis Hotel.
West Columbia, SC
Dear Mr. Thrower,
Thank you for sharing your memory of the Winecoff Hotel with me. I expect you'll be impressed with the refurbishments recently completed there.