A number of Romans have memories of Dec. 7 that don’t have anything to do with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For many Dec. 7, 1946, seems like just yesterday. That’s when the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta took the lives of 119 people, including four teenagers from Rome attending a YMCA Hi-Y Youth Assembly.
Charles Wilkes Keith, 15, George William “Billy” Walden, 16, Lamar Brown, 16, and James “Buzz” Slatton, 16, all succumbed in the fire. Teenagers from a half dozen other Georgia communities were also among the victims of the blaze, which broke out at about 3 a.m. on that Saturday.
The Winecoff, a 15-story structure on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, was billed in its heyday as being fireproof, therefore was constructed without a fire suppression system — no sprinkler, no fire escapes and no alarm system.
The design of the building, with stairwells in the middle of the structure, allowed the flames to be sucked through the heart of the hotel, forcing occupants to their rooms where some tried to escape by tying bed sheets together and dropping them out of their windows.
Others wrapped themselves in wet blankets and tried to make a dash for safety.
C.E. Hamil, an adviser for the Rome delegation, was able to wrap his son Richard in wet towels and was rescued by firefighters who hoisted a ladder truck to their window.
Brady E. Drummond of Rome was one of Walden’s best friends. He fights back tears today when remembering that tragic day.
“Billy was one of the finest young men I’d ever known,” said Drummond. “He played first string football for the Rome High Hilltoppers. He weighed 133 pounds soaking wet.”
Walden, who attended Trinity United Methodist Church, was president of the sub-district Methodist Youth Fellowship.
Walden had asked Drummond to attend the Youth Fellowship with the group from Rome. “He said, ‘You can sleep in the same room; we’ll bring a cot in there for you,’” Drummond said. “Every one of them was a super guy. They were all brilliant students, every one of them.”
Clayton Doss is another Roman who had been slated to go to the Youth Assembly but didn’t.
“I was selected one of the class representatives to go but didn’t,” said Doss. “My mother came in that morning and told us that the Winecoff Hotel had burned and I said ‘Thank you, Lord for not letting me go.’”
“They were all fine boys, wonderful guys,” said Doss. “They were at the top morally and spiritually, as well as students.”
Rome businessman Paul Camp was a good friend with all the victims.
“Buzz — we were in the band together,” said Camp. “He was a very good trumpet player.”
“At that time there was a Girls High and a Boys High so we didn’t go to school together,” said Anne Culpepper. “I had known them in other ways. The one that I probably knew the best of all was Lamar Brown. We were neighbors.”
Brown was an only child and his parents were devastated by the loss.
Doss said that at the time the YMCA did not have a building but had active clubs within the schools.
“I was with the Junior Hi-Y instead of the Hi-Y. We were the younger group,” said Doss.
Before coming to Rome in 1962, the late Jerry Bryant worked with the state YMCA in Atlanta and was in charge of the Youth Assembly for several years before moving to Rome. His wife, Martha Bryant Summerbell, said the Winecoff fire was always on the mind of people who attended the assembly.
“Every year we ran the Youth Assembly, when we had our staff meeting in preparation, we would remember the Winecoff fire and pray for protection, so nothing like that would ever happen again,” said Martha Summerbell. “That was always on the top of our agenda.”
It was in the aftermath of the Winecoff fire that Georgia adopted tougher building code and fire safety code regulations. “When you have a tragedy, you always look for a silver lining,” said Georgia Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine. “I think it’s a great tribute to the victims that Georgia became safer because of that tragedy.”
The once-luxurious hotel had a tattered and often-vacant existence after the tragic 1946 inferno that remains the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history — one that helped forever change fire codes not only here in Georgia but across the nation.
Developers renovated the 15-story structure in 2006 into a 127-room boutique hotel, renamed The Ellis, at 176 Peachtree St.
Just south of the building stands a historical marker “dedicated to the victims, the survivors, and the firemen who fought the Winecoff fire.”