Sixty-nine years ago today, the worst hotel fire in the nation’s history sent shock waves through the city of Rome.
On Dec. 7, 1946, four local teenagers were among the 119 who perished in the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, and others on the youth trip with them barely escaped with their lives.
The disaster lead to major changes in the state and national building and fire codes.
Charles Wilkes Keith, 15; George William “Billy” Walden, 16; Lamar Brown, 16; and James “Buzz” Slatton, 16, were all students at the original Rome Boys High School.
The four young men were in Atlanta to attend a YMCA Hi-Y Youth Assembly, along with teenagers from across the state.
The luxury hotel — billed as fireproof when it was first built — had no fire alarms, sprinkler systems or fire escapes.
Another problem was the design of the building itself. The stairwell was located in the center of the 15-story hotel. Quickly engulfed by the fire and fumes, it funneled the smoke and toxic gases all the way to the top floor.
The inferno began on the third floor at around 3 a.m. that Saturday, forcing those above it to try to make their escape from windows. Some tried to make ropes by tying bed sheets together.
Others doused blankets with water to protect themselves as they dashed through the fire to safety.
The four teenagers were all in the same room on the eighth floor.
Four other Rome students — Frank Pim, Roger Sumnicht, Charles Gray and Richard Collier — were able to escape from their fourth-floor rooms by sliding down a drainpipe.
C.E. Hamil, the school’s faculty advisor to the club, and his son Richard were able to crawl across a ladder to another building from their top-floor room.
Rome’s high schools suspended classes the Monday after the fire so students could attend the spate of funerals.
Two memorial plaques are now embedded in the sidewalk at the corner of Broad Street and Sixth Avenue, and a bronze tablet commissioned in 1947 hangs in the lobby of the Rome-Floyd YMCA on Second Avenue.
The Winecoff Hotel was badly damaged and, though reopened, never regained its status. However, the building at 176 Peachtree St. was renovated in 2006 into a 127-room boutique hotel and renamed The Ellis.
Today, construction regulations require escape plans and fire escapes, along with sprinkler and alarms systems and fire retardant materials in buildings that house large numbers of people.