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Winecoff fire in Atlanta 68 years ago prompted safety changes

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Rome teenagers Billy Walden, Charles Keith, James ‘Buzz’ Slatton and Lamar Brown were among 119 victims of a fire at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta on Dec. 7 of 1946.

The deaths of the Rome Hi-Y students along with 115 others, most of them teenagers from Albany, Bainbridge, Columbus, Donalsonville, Gainesville and Thomaston, lead to major improvements to building and fire codes that have saved an untold number of lives in the intervening years.

Rome Fire Marshal Dean Oswalt wrote a paper on the fire and its aftermath as part of his certification at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth four years ago.

Major problems encountered in battling the inferno included no fire alarms, no sprinkler systems and no fire escapes.

“Pretty much all access was either by elevators or a central stairwell,” Oswalt said. He said the open stairwell essentially created a chimney that funneled fire, smoke and toxic gases all the way to the 15th floor. The fire actually started on the third floor.

Oswalt also said another problem was the amount of combustible items in the hotel, including a lot of carpeting, painted burlap and wooden trim. Remember this was 1946.

He obtained a copy of a letter from H.N. Pye, the chief engineer for South-Eastern Underwriters Association, dated December 16, 1946, addressed to all of the underwriters bureau officers and engineers, which reads in part, “Even though a building may be of non-combustible construction, the contents, decorative material and furnishings may produce a fire of serious magnitude as to flame and which will quickly fill the hallways with toxic gases of combustion.”

That is not the norm now.

“Today most all of that in anyplace where you have a large number of people is supposed to be flame retardant and of course you’re supposed to have sprinkler systems and alarm systems,” Oswalt said.

Ss a direct result of the Winecoff fire, the following year the Georgia legislature passed the Georgia Building Exit Code, Oswalt said. “That basically requires means of escape in buildings in the event of a fire,” Oswalt said. “I think that has morphed into our present day Life Safety Code/Fire Prevention Code.”

Howard Gibson, director of the Rome-Floyd Building Inspection Department, said t every time something like the Winecoff fire happens, something new gets written into the code.

Gibson used the 9/11 disaster in New York as a modern day example.

“When it comes to high-rise situations, which is over 75 feet from floor level, the codes call for a safety elevator now strictly for the firefighter, so that’s one thing that has evolved recently,” Gibson said. He said that requirement is in the new International Building codes and Life Safety codes.

Gibson said sprinkler requirements have been pretty stringent since the more than 20 years he’s been in the inspection industry.

When it comes to family care and nursing home facilities Georgia has gotten much tougher when it comes to enhanced sprinkler systems. “That‘s more common sense I think,” Gibson said.