Book Cover

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Twist of Fate

Dear Mr. Goodwin,
I received the book today. Thank you very much for the prompt shipping and for signing the book. While looking after my grandfather, Robert Baird, after his hip replacement surgery last week he related to me how he was in Atlanta on business the day of the fire. He debated that evening about staying the night in Atlanta or driving back home through the night. He was near the Winecoff and would have stayed there if not for deciding to come home.
Thanks again,
Mark Baird Knoxville, TN.

Dear Mark,
Thanks for the delivery notification. How fortunate indeed your grandfather was! I hope he's doing OK.
I thought at first you might be related to Dr. Renfroe Baird who escaped from room 804. My co-author, Sam Heys, interviewed him. His story is told beginning on page 35 of our book.
Best wishes,

Monday, January 7, 2008

Daughters Attend Remembrance Ceremony

Friday night, December 7, 2007 on the sixty-first anniversary of the Winecoff Hotel fire, in which our daddy, William Edgar (Bill) Bryson, was killed, my sister Sue Anne and I went to a reunion of survivors and victims of the disaster.

We walked from the parking garage to the entrance of the Winecoff (now the Ellis Hotel). Christmas lights were glistening all along the street, and there was even a picturesque white horse and carriage taking people for rides. As I stood there in front of the building, the horse and carriage gradually seemed to be moving in slow motion, and the sky above the hotel itself appeared threateningly dark. Looking up where it towered over me, I felt an ominous heaviness and was transported back to that night in 1946. We went inside, and even though the furnishings and carpet were new, I felt that I was truly in the old hotel.

I went into the reception room and saw numerous white helium balloons with long strings dangling from them suspended in the air. While Mr. Tom O’Leary (the manager of the Ellis Hotel) was welcoming us and talking about the renovations that had been done, all of a sudden I got a powerful and unmistakable whiff of smoke and burned walls. I looked around me, but no one else seemed to have noticed anything. At the same time, the corner where Mr. O’Leary was standing behind the podium seemed to me to grow gray and darker and I found myself almost straining to hear his words. Now, I am convinced that Daddy’s spirit was in that reception room with us and that I was experiencing actual sights and sounds from the December 7, 1946 fire. Also, a man standing in front of me had a strong odor of pipe tobacco on his coat, and I was reminded of Daddy again. Even though I was only two years old when he was killed, I remember several times as an older child taking some pipes Mama had saved out of the dresser and smelling them.

After Mr. O’Leary’s remarks, Dr. Truett Gannon , who was inspired to become a minister by the fire experience, spoke. He explained that he was not related by blood to anyone killed in the fire. In 1946, he was only 16 years old and staying in a nearby hotel that night. When the Williams family from his hometown of Cordele, Georgia, heard about the fire, they called and asked Gannon to locate three family members who had been staying in the Winecoff and then try to find Mr. Williams, who would be driving to Atlanta. Gannon found his friend Ed Kiker Williams at St. Joseph’s Infirmary downtown but learned from him that his mother (Boisclair Williams) and sister (Clair Williams) had perished in the hotel. The young Gannon then went to look for Mr. Williams. When he located Mr. Williams’ car on Courtland Street and Mr. Williams asked him about his loved ones, Gannon froze. He told the man how to get to St. Joseph’s to see his son, but he couldn’t find the words to tell him the fate of his wife and daughter.

This inability to know what to say to Mr. Williams weighed heavily on the young Gannon, and, as a result, he determined later that day to become a minister of God and learn how to help families cope with death. He said that when he came to realize his own destiny and purpose in life, a great burden was lifted from him and he wanted to help and lift our burdens in return. Dr. Gannon’s retirement from the faculty of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology had become effective at noon on December 7, the day of the reunion, and he thanked all of the victims’ families for the inspiration he received as a result of the tragedy to fulfill a calling that became the great passion of his life and ministry – helping families cope with death.

After Dr. Gannon’s moving talk, Janet Cox, who helped organize the event, asked that each family take one of the white helium balloons outside to the memorial marker beside the hotel; she asked that we speak the name of our loved one(s) and then release the balloon into the night sky. One by one, each family gathered in front of the marker said the name of their loved one(s) who died and released their balloons. I was surprised how much emotion I felt, but saying Daddy’s name and letting go of the balloon did provide a feeling of release.

I am so glad we went. We got to talk to several people about their families and loved ones and to share pictures and stories with them. I feel a stronger connection to our daddy now; I know now that it was no accident that Susie came to live here in Atlanta where he died. I also know that he is with me in Cullowhee – the town of his birth.

Sherry Bryson Fox