Gulf Hotel Fire – September 7, 1943

City in Ruins

Fifty-five men, many of them elderly and living off government relief, died in the early morning of September 7, 1943 in the worst hotel fire in Houston, Texas history.

The Coshocton Tribune, 07 Sep 1943, Tue, Page 1

The Coshocton Tribune,  September 7. 1943

The fire started around 12:10 a.m. the front desk clerk was alerted to a problem on the second floor. A lit cigarette inadvertently caused a mattress to begin smoldering. Several guests of the hotel aided the clerk in extinguishing the small fire. The mattress, thought to be completely fine, was moved to a closet in a hallway on the second floor. Minutes later the mattress burst in flames and the fire spread quickly throughout the second floor and moved its way toward the third.

The old hotel only had two emergency exits, both on one side of the building and the flames blocked one of those exits and an interior stairwell became engulfed leaving many of the 133 guests trapped.

The fire department was located near the hotel and received the alarm at 12:50am. By the time they arrived on the scene the building was engulfed in flames. The fire tore through the old building quickly and burned so hot that the fire department could not place ladders against the building to help people escape.

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The aged men struggled to get out of the building. Many we able to slowly escape from the one working escape, but for many the situation became dire. Unable to leave through an exit many resorted to extreme measures. Two men jumped out the window, one man was killed trying to climb down the building by a burning window falling on him and many just stayed in their room and hope the flames would not reach them.

By the time the fire was extinguished, fifty-five men were dead. 38 men were burned to death, 15 died of smoke inhalation and the two men who jumped to their death.

The Gulf Hotel is a common story – an old building, not up to code, holding too many people without proper exits and no sprinkler system. Many of the lessons that could have been learned by the conflagration were ignored or completely forgotten. The Gulf Hotel fire was the biggest fire of 1943 (Cocoanut Grove) or even the biggest story in the newspapers that day. World War II raged on and a train wreck in Pennsylvania killed 79 people and injured 117.

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The St. Louis Star and Times,  07 Sep 1943

 

The Terminal Hotel Fire – Atlanta, Georgia

City in Ruins, Uncategorized

WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: May 16, 1938 around 3:00am
WHERE: Atlanta, Georgia
FATALITIES: 35 dead, as many as 15 injured

The Evening News – May 16, 1938

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.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – May 16, 1938

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.

Albany Democrat Herald – May 27, 1938

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.

 

The rescue of Mrs. Guy Coleman – AP Photo

 

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.

Barton Hotel Fire, Chicago, Illinois – February 12, 1955

City in Ruins

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WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: February 12, 1955
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
FATALITIES: 29

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The Decatur Daily Review, February 12, 1955

HUMAN TORCH BLAMED FOR START OF FIRE

At approximately 2 a.m. on the morning on February 12, 1955, C.W. Harvey, night manager of a  West Madison Street (Skid Row) flophouse called the Barton Hotel heard a commotion coming from the second floor of the 49 year-old hotel so run down that it had chicken wire instead of actual ceilings. What Harvey found in the hallway both singed and confused him, There, standing before him, was a ball of screaming and flames that was 70 year-old Joe Armatzo.

Armatzo was a regular at the Barton Hotel and was known to use and excessive amount of baby oil on his body. According to eyewitness accounts, it appeared that Armatzo actually dropped a lit cigarette which ignited a small pool of baby oil on fire in 4 x 6 x 7″ room. He attempted to put out the flames, but was so covered in baby oil that the flames spread to his body turning Armatzo into a human torch. With his room and body on fire Armatzo rushed outside for help but actually caused the fire to spread rather quickly.

C.W. Harvey, seeing this grotesque sight, did not immediately ring the fire alarm to alert the fire department, instead he and others attempted to put out the fire temselves causing the fire spread faster. After 30 minutes the fire department alarm rand and then Harvey ran through the hotel banging on the doors in attempt to wake the sleeping patrons.

Most of the 245 men staying in the 65 to 75 cent a night Barton Hotel heard the commotion, alarm and knocks and quickly hurried without shoes or socks in the frozen streets. Not everyone made it out.

 

Some of the men slept through the noise and burned or died from smoke inhalation. Some, either unable to move due to malady or injury were unable to escape and died in the rooms. Some attempted to escape by breaking the window panes and jumping out.

Firefighters, arrived and knew this was going to be a battle. The hotel’s conditioning were appalling and caused the building to ignite in flames very quickly. To add to that, a 20 mile an hour wind spread the flames and lead to even colder temperatures in the already below freezing February morning. After more three and half hours, the firefighters finally snuffed on the blaze.

When daylight broke that morning, firefighters were shocked and horrified at the aftermath of the conflagration. Searching through the rubble they encountered the badly charred remains of one person after another. After nearly a week of sifting through the debris twenty-nine bodies were found.

Coroner Walter McCaron would later state he was appalled that than many people were staying in such a small place. He called for an immediate investigation in Chicago’s flophouses. A few days later a crackdown began and many of the Skid Row “hotels” were closed.

Two weeks after the fire a coroner’s jury said the owner, two operators, Anthony Dykes, night watchman of the hotel and Harvey were negligent by not reporting the fire immediately. Ben Glassman, one of the operators would fined $200 for a building code violation for not having sprinklers.None of the five charges would ever be indicted. The 29 bodies were buried in cemeteries around Chicago by the end of February.

Kerns Hotel Fire – December 11, 1934

City in Ruins
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Lansing State Journal – December 12, 1934

 

Around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of December 11, 1934 a fire broke out at the Kerns Hotel in Lansing, Michigan. The hotel, built in 1909, was four stories tall and originally contained 162 rooms at a cost of over $50,000. The hotel was a very popular place in Lansing. Communities members and state politicians enjoyed staying or meeting at the hotel. The location on the corner of SE Grand and Ottawa was right in the heart of downtown and allowed for easy and quick access to most everything in Lansing. The restaurant and bar in the Kerns were constantly packed during the non-prohibition years.

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Detroit Free Press – December 12, 1934

The fire was discovered by the nightwatchman and had apparently been burning for nearly 30 minutes. The alarm bell was sounded almost immediately after discovery but it was already too late. The interior of the building was made entirely of wood and the flames spread fast. Being so early in the morning, many of the hotel’s 215 guests were still asleep when the alarm rang.

The fire department showed up almost immediately and many of the guests on the lower two floors were able to escape quickly. The guests on the third and fourth floor were unable to get down the stairs and were basically trapped. A steel at one end prevented

Flames swept through the hallways and doors leaving many on the upper floors to cry for help and seek a dramatic escape. The fire department had ladders and were able to get some out but not everyone could get to the ladders. Some victims attempted to gain safety by jumping onto the kitchen roof below but ultimately perished when the roof collapsed. Some guests jumped out of the windows and attempted to jump into safety nets placed on the street below.. Several people died when they jumped to the ground below missing the firemen’s net.

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Detroit Free Press – December 13, 1934

The death toll was difficult to determine due to the fact that many victims were unable to be found. Some victims were charred beyond recognition and others were feared lost in the freezing Grand River. The river was located directly behind the hotel and guests, trapped by the blaze, may have leaped from their windows directly into the ice-covered river.The fire caused several  of the brick exterior walls to collapse, killing several.

After the river was dragged and the ruins combed it was determined that 32 persons died and 44 were injured, including 14 firemen. Among the dead were seven Michigan state legislators in town for a special session of the state legislature

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  • JOHN W. GOODWINE, representative from Marlette. He was completing his fourth term in the Legislature. He operated a stock farm in Elmer Township; directed the farm bureau. He was 56 years old.
  • VERN VOORHEES, representative from Albion. A farmer, her moved to Calhoun County from Mendon in 1907. Served as school director, highway commissioner and supervisor. At 56, he was serving his first term.
  • CHARLES D. PARKER, representative from Genesee County. A Democrat, Mr. Parker was serving his first term. A hardware merchant, born in South Mountain, Ontario 57 years ago. He left a widow and two sons.
  • T. HENRY HOWLETT, representative from Gregory. He was finishing his first term. A merchant, he served Livingstone County as supervisor and treasurer for many years. He was 70 years old.
  • JOHN LEIDLEIN, State senator from Saginaw. He was serving his fourth term. He was 70 years old.
  • DONALD E. SIAS, representative from Midland. He was completing his second term. Born in Midland he was serving as an aviator in World War I. Before going into dairy, he taught school at Ypsilanti.
  • WILLIAM HANNA, representative from Caro died several days after the fire of injuries sustained while jumping out his third floor window and missing the safety net.

Several other state legislators were injured, but survived. The deaths of the politicians caused anguish and strife. Special elections had to be held in four different legislative districts to elect new members to replace the fallen.

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Lansing State Journal – December 11, 1934

The deaths actually caused the balance of power in the Michigan House of Representatives to shift from the G.O.P. to the Democarts when M.L. Tomlin won the final seat.

The widow of Vern Voorhees was awarded $750 in May of 1935 for funeral costs and hospital. Other settlements were awarded but the amounts were not disclosed.

There were four victims of the fire that were never identified. A funeral was held for them on December 29th at the Prudden Auditorium in Lansing.

It was determined that the fire was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette in the room of David Monroe, hotel manager, who died in the conflagration. No charges were brought against anyone from the hotel. It was determined that a reasonable effort was made to arouse and awaken the 200+ sleeping guests.

On June 1, 1935 the Hotel Safety Act of Michigan went into effect. The act was drafted to prevent any possibility of a recurrence of the events at the Kerns Hotel. The Act stated that any building in the state that had 10 or more persons sleeping above the first be registered with the state fire marshal and that the safety of the hotel was to be approved upon inspection.

Unfortunately this would not be the last hotel fire in Michigan with at least 10 lives lost. Almost exactly 43 years later on December 10, 1977, the Wenonah Park Hotel fire in Bay City resulted in ten deaths.

Golden Age Nursing Home Fire – November 23, 1963

City in Ruins, Uncategorized
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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 23, 1963

CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Nursing home fire
WHEN: November 23, 1963 approx. 4:50am
WHERE: Norwalk, Ohio
CASUALTIES: 63 dead, over 25 injured

Largely forgotten due to the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous day, The Golden Age Nursing Home fire is considered the second worse nursing home fire ( in the history of the country with 63 dead and over 25 injured.

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The Daily Times – November 23, 1963

The fire was caused by an electrical short in the upper attic around 5:00 a.m. and spread incredibly quickly. The nursing home, which had previously been home to a toy factory, went up in flames very rapidly. The telephone system failed when the fire broke out and the building did not have an alarm. A young man happened to notice the fire as he was passing by, and called the fire department.

Within minutes nearly all of the fire departments in the Norwalk area arrived shortly after 5:15am and by then it was too late. The flame, fueled by fierce winds, had already caused the tar-covered roof to boil and fall in to the building, preventing firefighters from getting to the unknown number of people still inside.

Breakfast was starting to be served when a man came to the front door to tell everyone that the nursing home was on fire. There was still time to get people out but some of the elderly denizens seemed to get confused by the news and didn’t move. According to news report at the time “many of the patients were real bad mental cases and could not comprehend their own danger.” By the time the fire was over 63 people would be pronounced dead.

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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 24, 1963

However, it wasn’t just confusion that lead to the high death count. Glass blocks made a window escape impossible.Several of the seniors perished because they were restrained to their beds and no one had a chance to release them before the fire swept through the building.

24 seniors and 3 staff members were able to escape the rapidly moving flames. But when the fire was finally extinguished, firefighters were horrified at the sight. Twisted metal bed frames containing charred remains seem to be everywhere.

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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 24, 1963

 

 

After a few days, more than 20 bodies remained unclaimed. Some had no family and some families never came to claim their parent or loved one. Rather than bury them all straight in to the ground, caskets were ordered, temporarily delaying the funerals for everyone due to a casket shortage.

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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 30, 1963

On November 29th, 21 unclaimed people were buried in a mass, 60-foot grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in Norwalk. A 22nd body, of John Rook, a veteran of World War I was buried in a separate grave on the same day.

An event such as this usually dominates the headlines across the nation. The Golden Age Nursing Home fire was the deadliest fire in the United States in 5 years and would have horrified the country, but it was never the biggest story at the time and seemed to be an afterthought to the Kennedy assassination and the rush to charge Lee Harvey Oswald with the murder.

The fire did lead to sweeping changes in nursing home fire safety and treatment of seniors in these facilities.