WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: May 16, 1938 around 3:00am
WHERE: Atlanta, Georgia
FATALITIES: 35 dead, as many as 15 injured
On May 16, 1938 the most disastrous fire in Atlanta’s history at time based on the loss of life, broke out in the kitchen of the Terminal Hotel. Located in the Hotel Row District in Atlanta at the corner of Spring and Mitchell Streets, the hotel mainly catered to travelers arriving and departing from the Terminal Station right across the street.
The original Terminal Hotel was built by Samuel Inman in 1906. That hotel burned to the ground in the Terminal District fire that swept through the neighborhood in 1908. A new five story structure was re-built on that site. The new Terminal Hotel was something of a fire magnet, if such a term exists, as there had been three fires in the hotel in the 30 years it was open. The other fires were fairly minor compared to the destruction and death caused by this one.
At around 3:00 a.m. on May 16th, fire was discovered in the basement of the hotel and the alarm bell was sounded. Longtime bellhop Charlie Labon, was in the doing his early morning/late night duties in the lobby when the blaze started. Labon said he heard a boy in the kitchen scream: “Oh lawdy, fire” and then heard a muffled blast below and saw a puff of flames travel upward very quickly.
Ben Berry, the desk clerk at the Terminal attempted to warn they guests of the fire, but the blaze had destroyed all connections. It may have been too late already. The venerable old hotel had a wooden interior and the flames tore through the place at a rapid pace blocking off fire escapes and stairs on the upper floor within minutes. Guests, sound a sleep at 3:00 am were awakened by the smoke and flames of the conflagration tearing through the building.
Firemen arrived shortly after the alarm bell sounded and they were met by an inferno. The fire department diverted local traffic due to the fear that the blaze would cause the hotel’s walls to collapse in all directions. The firefighters tried to stop the blaze with all the hoses they could muster, but the blaze was too strong. After a short time the interior and the roof collapsed.
Some people smelled smoke and were able to escape quickly. Others were not so lucky. Several people were killed attempting to escape the flames by jumping out of their windows on to the street below. An entire family of four, including 2 young children were found in their room having succumbed to smoke inhalation. One victim was found dead on a second floor ledge of the hotel court, where he had attempted to jump to safety.
Many of the victims were burned to death and others suffocated. Many of the bodies were horribly mangled in the collapse of floors and steel work. Amazingly, after the fire had burned itself out Mrs. Guy Coleman, was found alive in a semi-conscious state in her second-story room. She was found under her bed in the only portion of the room left after the collapse.
Hotel manager G.P. Jones and his wife survived the flames by breaking a window. The firemen saw the window break and rushed to his room and rescued the both of them.
It was initially reported that 25 people died as a result of the disaster, but that number would rise. Over the next few days ten more bodies were discovered underneath the rubble of the collapsed sections.
The hotel had only between 60 and 75 guests staying there that night otherwise the loss of life would have been much worse. The hotel 65 rooms and many were unoccupied. Many of the guests that night were railroad workers in town for only a short while.
Atlanta Mayor Will B. Hartsfield stated that the hotel was constructed in a manor no longer permitted under the building codes of the day. However, the hotel was allowed to operate due to being grandfathered in.
The cause of the fire was never officially determined but it believed to caused by a electrical spark from a ventilating fan in a grease vent in the basement kitchen. The wooden interior mixed with warm, high winds cause the rapidity of the flames.
The fire was the first major hotel fire disaster since the December 11, 1934 fire at the Kerns Hotel in Lansing, Michigan that killed 32 but it would not be the last. In fact, eight years later Atlanta would be the site of the biggest loss of life hotel fire in history when a disaster at the Winecoff Hotel would kill 119 people.
The hotel was rebuilt later that year. It was torn down quite a while ago with no evidence of the horrors that took place on the May morning in 1938.