Wednesday, May 9, 2012

WORST U.S. HOTEL DISASTER - Herbert E. Swanson

You can seldom tell from looking at a tombstone how someone died. Was it quick and painless, or did it take a long time to die in anguish? Take a look at this tombstone and see if you can tell how this man died:

Can't tell much from looking at the tombstone itself.  Well, recently a photo request came through Find a Grave for Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago:  "Herbert E. Swanson who died December 7, 1946 and is buried in Section - Lot 116 - Sublot 3".  The request went on to say that "Herbert Swanson was a 38 year old victim of the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, Georgia on December 7, 1946. He was from Chicago, Illinois and stayed in room 522."
I had never heard of the Winecoff Hotel fire and was shocked to find that it was (and is) the deadliest hotel fire in US history, killing 119 hotel occupants, including the hotel's owners - and also including Herbert E. Swanson from Chicago.

Before we look further into the fire itself, let's see what we can find out about Herbert Swanson.

According to his tombstone, Herbert E. Swanson was born in 1908. His parents, Edward and Nannie C. Swanson and buried just below him at Rosehill:

Edward Swenson (sic), 31 years old from Chicago, married 24 year old Nannie Froholm, also from Chicago on September 17, 1898 by the Rev. Herman Lindskog, Rector of St. Ansgarius Swedish-American Episcopal Church.

Here's a picture of St. Ansgarius Church, and Rev. Lindskog:

Edward Swensen (sic) , son of Edward Swenssen (sic) and Nannie Freholm (sic) was born 05 Mar 1908 in Chicago.

A comment here:  Look at all the differences in spellings of just these three people.  Is it any wonder that genealogy is a maddening hobby???  Just asking...  Anyway, back to the Swansons.
The 1930 census shows the Swanson family living at 1507 West Highland Avenue in Chicago.

The father Edward (born Sweden 1867) is a tool maker for a steel company.  His wife Nannie (born Sweden 1873) is a housewife. Daughter Edith (born 1899 in Illinois) is a stenographer for an insurance company and son Herbert (born 1909 in Chicago) is not working.  However, young Edward Swensen is now going by the name of Herbert Swanson.  Why?  Perhaps he did not want to be known as "Junior".  One of the frustrating things about genealogy research is that not all of your questions will be answered, but the search is fun nonetheless.

The 1940 census shows most of the Swanson family still at 1507 West Highland Avenue in Chicago.  By now, 70 year old Edward is a handyman for a tool manufacturer, Nannie is a housewife and now 31 year old Herbert is a laborer for a wholesale grocery.  Edith is no longer listed so she has probably married or moved out on her own.

1946 was not a good year for the Swanson family.  Nannie Caroline Froholm Swanson died on September 18, 1946, and was, as we know, buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.  Under normal circumstances we would never know what took Herbert Swanson to Atlanta, Georgia in December of 1946, but we do know that on the night of December 7, 1946 Herbert Swanson of Chicago, Illinois was staying in Room 522 of the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Many Trapped Guests Leap to Doom; 100 Hurt
Atlanta Blaze Worst of Kind in History

Atlanta, Ga., Dec. 7 [Special]-
Origin of the blaze which broke out between 3 and 3:15 a.m. on the 4th floor of the Winecoff hotel here today and spread with explosive fury to upper floors to cause death to at least 116 persons and injuries to 100 others remained a mystery tonight.  Among the identified dead was Herbert E. Swanson, 35, of 1507 Highland av., Chicago, associate editor of Rock Products magazine, a trade publication.

Investigations - probably long drawn out and many sided - were to come, but officials and foremen were too busy today with problems of the disaster's immediate aftermath to make plans for them. Identification of bodies, many burned beyond recognition, proceeded rapidly, with 103 being identified by late tonight.

Building a Gaunt Shell

The death toll was the largest in any hotel fire in United States history, eclipsing the previous record of 71 in Milwaukee's Newhall House fire in 1883.  The Hotel La Salle fire in Chicago six months ago took 61 lives.

The 15 story steel, brick and concrete structure of the Winecoff, situated on Atlanta's famed Peachtree st., was a gaunt and gutted shell tonight with charred and twisted blankets and bedsheets hanging from scores of windows like empty shrouds.  Some of these were instruments of escape or rescue to trapped guests, but most were avenues to death, to persons who had swung helplessly in billowing smoke after being driven from their rooms.

Police Chief M.A. Hornsby estimated that from 25 to 30 persons were killed in leaps or falls from upper stories.

Lack Theories on Cause

A recapitulation of casualty lists late today indicated there were 282 guests in the hotel last night and that the total of those who left the building uninjured may be as high as 58.  Possibility that a few bodies may remain in the debris was not entirely discounted, altho fire officials said they believed all bodies have been recovered.

No person had come forward tonight with even a theory as to how the fire started.  All that was known was that fire was first discovered on the fourth floor about 3:15 a.m. by a Negro woman elevator operator who noticed smoke and a flash of flame as her descending cage passed this floor.

The woman went to the first floor and rushed to the desk to notify Comer Rowan, night clerk.  Bill Moberly, night bell captain, took another elevator to the fifth floor to investigate.  He found the floor a sea of flame and was trapped on the fifth floor for the duration of the blaze.

The fire spread upward from the fifth to the 15th floor with a rapidity which surviving observers described as that of a flame thrower.  The interior of the so-called fire resistance structure became an inferno in a matter of minutes.

Phones Warnings to Guests

Rowan seated himself at the hotel switchboard and began calling guests to warn them of the fire.  He said tonight he talked to persons in about half of the hotel's rooms.  For most of those with whom he talked, however, his words were the last from the outside world.  Before many could open their doors, flames racing along the corridors had cut off chances of escape.

The Winecoff was without outside fire escapes, fire officials said.  Stair wells and elevator shafts filled with smoke and leaping flames in the fire's first upward surge, cutting off escape by any method except thru windows.  Some guests who were fortunate and who kept their heads, sat it out in barricaded rooms.

Death came in numerous ways to the trapped guests.  Some leaped blindly from windows, and others tried to jump into firemen's nets.  Many rushed in panic thru the corridors to die of suffocation or burns.  Some were roasted to death as they huddled in bathrooms or closets.

Some Survive Drops

Most persons with rooms in the third floor saved themselves by dashing downstairs or dropping from window ledges.  Above the tenth floor a few residents survived by remaining in their rooms after stuffing mattresses and bed clothes into shattered transoms and around doors to keep out the smoke.  Firemen with ladders saved dozens of others.

Edward W. Sherwood, 54, of Chicago, a golf professional , was one of the few 9th floor guests who escape uninjured.  Tonight he gave The Tribune a vivid account of his ordeal.

"I went to my bedroom about 7:30 p.m. and retired, leaving a call for 8 a.m.," he said.  "I had intended to check out and leave Atlanta today.  I am a light sleeper and I woke up at 3:30 a.m. hearing cries of fire from the alley under my room.  I opened the door but found the hall full of smoke, so I shut the door at once and plugged up the cracks with bed sheets.

Floor Becomes Hot

"After a while the floor got so hot I could no longer stand on it.  I opened a window and crawled out on the ledge.  The heat from the room was so intense I managed to close the window while clinging to the edge.  I could see dozens of persons from my floor and from floors above and below me also standing on window ledges.  Every once in a while one of them would shriek and dive off.

"A woman was standing on a ledge next to mine.  She kept crying that she was going to fall.  She was just too far away for me to reach her.  I pleaded with her to hang on, but it did no good.  She plunged down."

Sherwood said he stood on the ledge for between 45 minutes and one hour, shouting, "ladder, ladder," until he became too horse to shout.  "I was clinging there praying and the heat was so intense it seemed I could not bear it another minute,"  he said, "Then from the office building across the alley firemen pushed a ladder at me.  They were above me and the ladder came down at about a 30 degree angle.  I grabbed it and got it fixed to the ledge.  Then I crawled upward across the alley to the office window."

Collapses After Rescue

Sherwood said he collapsed as he reached safety and that he hopes he can forget the horrible scenes he witnessed during his ordeal on the ledge.  He was revived without hospital attention and sent a wire to his wife assuring her of his safety.  She is living temporarily at 714 Clinton place, River Forest.  Sherwood is a representative of the McDonald company, manufacturer of golf equipment, of West Chicago.

Sherwood said it was his observation that water pressure limited fire fighting activities to the first 8 floors of the hotel.

A midwesterner among the identified dead was Dr. Carl E. Rasmussen of Des Moines, Ia.

Midwesterners on the list of injured at Grady hospital included H.B. Keller, Chicago, Ima Dell Ingram of Rockford, Ill., and Mrs. Kitty Tribble, Poole hotel, Rockford, Ill.

Miss Ingran, 24, said she and her aunt, Mrs. Tribble were in a room on the eighth floor and peered out to see a ladder below them but extending only to the sixth floor.  They knotted sheets together and attempted a descent.  Miss Ingram reached a ladder but saw her aunt slip and fall.  At the hospital she found her aunt also safe.

"I lost consciousness when I slipped," Mrs. Tribble said, "I guess I must have hit a net."

Atlantans Throng Area

Thousand of Atlanta residents jammed midtown streets today to view the burned out structure and to talk in hushed tones of the tragedy.  It was a consensus of opinion that "Something must be done to make hotels safer, " but there were no concrete suggestions.  A report circulated that the hotel had been inspected within the past week and given a clean bill of health by the fire department.  This was not immediately confirmed.

Hotel's Builder Killed

W.F. Winecoff, who built the hotel in 1914 and has lived there in retirement since selling his interest in 1938, lost his life in the blaze, as did his wife.  They occupied a 10th floor apartment.

The hotel is now owned by Mrs. Annie Lee Irwin of Atlanta and operated by a lessor, Arthur F. Geele Sr., of Danville, Ky., in association with his son, Arthur Jr. and R.E. O'Connell, a Chicago detective.

The Geeles were on a hunting trip when the fire occurred.  O'Connell was in the hotel and was reported injured.

Woman 60, Saves Three

The wife and two children of Arthur Geele, Jr. were saved thru the efforts of Mrs. Banks Whiteman, 60, operator of the hotel's cigar counter, who had been spending the night with Mrs. Geele Sr. in the latter's 15th floor suite.  Mrs. Whiteman heard cries for help from Mrs. Geele Jr. who was in a 14th floor room with her children.  Mrs. Whiteman, who weighs about 100 pounds, dropped a twisted sheet to the floor below and pulled the children Esther, 6, and John, 14, up to safety.  She and John then pulled up Mrs. Geele Jr.  All crouched in the 15th floor room until firemen reached them.

Mrs. G.D. Burch of Chattanooga, Tenn., fell 10 stories and lived.  Her husband, 21, said they were in a 10th floor room when the fire broke out.  He knotted several sheets together and hung them out the window.  He said a ladder had reached the 8th floor and that he helped his wife out the window.

"I saw her slip and fall," he said.  "I climbed out not knowing what had happened to her."  At Grady hospital he learned she had been caught by firemen and was alive, altho injured.  He said she suffered fractured legs and internal injuries.

Alvin J. Millman of 4833 N. Kenneth av., Chicago, escaped from a 3rd floor room by jumping into a life net.

Persons on the street while the flames were at their height told many stories of witnessing death plunges and heroic rescues.  One said he saw a fireman, who was descending a ladder with a woman, struck squarely by a body hurtling from an upper floor.  All three fell several floors to the hotel marquee, it was said.  Both women were killed, and the fireman, Jack Burnham, was gravely injured.
Chicago Daily Tribune, December 8, 1946

What a tragedy.  Herbert E. Swanson, who started life in Chicago in 1908 (as Edward Swensen) lost his life on December 7, 1946 in Atlanta, Georgia.  We will never know if Herbert suffered, or for how long.  We can only pray that his death came quickly and painlessly, although that was not the case for so many of the Winecoff Hotel's victims.  Herbert was buried several days later right above his mother's grave in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.  Although he died miles away from home, the family decided it was only proper that he be buried here in his home town with his Mother.   

Herbert's father Edward joined his family at Rosehill ten years later in 1956. 

By now we have seen that it is impossible in most cases to tell how someone died from looking at their tombstone.  Many years ago I saw a tombstone inscription that is a fitting way to end the story of  Herbert Swanson:

Remember man, as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you shall be
Please stop and say a prayer for me.

May Herbert E. Swanson, and all the victims of the Winecoff Hotel fire, rest in peace.

Thanks to Chet Wallace who put me onto the story of Herbert Swanson with his Find a Grave photo request.  Chet is currently working on a project to locate the graves of all of the victims of the Winecoff Hotel fire.  He is also working on a book about their lives as well as survivors, firemen and policeman who were on the scene.

If you are interested in more information about the Winecoff Hotel Fire, here are some excellent websites:

Peachtree Burning - a one-hour documentary depicting the tragedy of America's worst hotel fire:

Don't blame me if you have nightmares....


  1. Amazing!!! What amazing research you have done- it is true what you said- that we don't know the story under the stone. (until we research it)