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The Winecoff Hotel (and fire)
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"Peachtree Burning" Documentary Filmakers Site Regarding the Winecoff Hotel Fire
Dawn Fields: Producer/Director/Editor
Dawn Fields has worked in production, post-production, development and acquisitions for several Los Angeles based production/distribution companies and has aquired many producer, production coordinator, assistant director and editor credits on features, shorts, and documentaries.
Ms. Fields has written, produced and directed her own projects including dramatic shorts, award-winning music videos, feature films, documentaries and regional Lottery commercials. She self-published a trade magazine for filmmakers, teaches filmmaking seminars and has several features and documentaries in various stages of production
See Ms. Field's text below:
The Winecoff Hotel's Origins
Built in 1913 by renowned architect, William Lee Stoddard, the Winecoff Hotel was Atlanta's tallest and most luxurious hotel. Standing fifteen stories tall with an open-air terrace dining room, coffee shop and lounge, the hotel was strategically located in the heart of Atlanta's retail district. According to their stationery, the hotel was advertised as being absolutely fireproof, even though it was designed without fire alarms, fire escapes or a sprinkler system.
The Night of The Fire
On December 7, 1946, the hotel was filled to capacity with over two hundred and eighty guests including shoppers, travelers, World War II soldiers eager to rebuild their lives, and forty of Georgia's most promising high school students who had come to attend a mock legislation. And even though the five year anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day was somberly approaching, Christmas was just around the corner and there was a sense of hope and excitement in the winter air.
Around three o'clock in the morning, the elevator operator, descending from the top floor, noticed the smell of smoke around the fifth floor. Panicked, she stumbled out of the elevator upon reaching the lobby and began screaming, "Fire! Fire!" Unbeknownst to her, the fire had already completely engulfed floors three, four and five. For employees of the hotel and the guests who were awake, realization and reaction would come quickly. But for the guests who were asleep, survival would come at a much higher price. Before dawn, a total of one hundred and nineteen lives would be lost.
The Tragedy of The Hotel's Design
One of the most critical factors contributing to this staggering loss of life was the design of the building itself. Based on "European" design, the hotel was a perfect square with the stairwell and elevator shafts running straight through the middle. Thin wooden doors leading to the stairwells had been left open on several floors as well as many transoms above guest rooms allowing smoke and flames to be pulled upward like a giant chimney. When the only means of egress became impassable, guests were forced to the windows of their rooms, where they were met with precious few choices. Many fashioned sheet ropes, while others doused their rooms and themselves with toilet and bath water. Others simply awaited their fates in hopeless silence.
By the time fire trucks arrived, many guests were already on the verge of jumping and many lept to their deaths moments before ladders reached their windows. Fear had reached such a fevered pitch that panic-strickened guests became desperate, and nothing short of a human rain shower ensued. Several firefighters fell to their deaths or were injured after being knocked off their ladders by falling bodies. Mothers hurled their babies from windows only to follow them to their deaths.
Rescue efforts were further hindered by the geographic location of the building. The Mortgage Guarantee Building sat opposite the hotel with only about six feet of alley between them. This prevented any kind of rescue from the firetrucks. But perhaps the most unfortunate limitation came from the trucks themselves. Back then, fire trucks were outfitted with ladders that could only reach as high as the seventh floor.
Eighty percent of the fatalities were guests who were staying above the eighth floor and on the back side of the building. It was reported that thirty-six people died from falling or jumping, thirty-two burned and forty-one suffocated from smoke and fumes. Perhaps the most tragic of these victims were the thirty teenage children who lost their lives and the elderly Winecoffs, who had resided in the hotel since its inception.
The Investigation: Accident or Arson?
By the time Mayor Hartsfield arrived at the location, nothing remained but smoldering embers and the smell of burnt flesh. The brick exterior was still intact, but the hollow shell of its inside told a different and tragic story. According to a report filed by the National Board of Underwriters, a partially burned mattress found in a hallway on the third floor gave rise to the conclusion that a careless and possibly intoxicated guest dropped a cigarette onto it, thus starting the fire.
Pressured by public outcry for culpability, and anxious to prove himself as "the mayor who cares", Hartsfield invited fire experts from across the country to conduct their own investigations. Many of these experts were convinced that due to the massive devastation, the intensity of the fire's heat and the speed at which it accelerated, a smoldering mattress could not possibly have been the cause. Several arson theories emerged including an illegal poker game on the third floor that spun out of control. But the press and the public in general were more concerned about why an "absolutely fireproof" hotel lacked fire escapes, a sprinkler system and fire alarms and less concerned with theories of arson. They demanded answers from the hotel's owners and operators.
Families and Survivors File Suit
In 1948, the first of over one hundred and fifty lawsuits came to trial against the Winecoff Hotel Company. The plaintiffs' lawyers hoped to prove that the hotel owner and the hotel operators were negligent in not providing adequate fire safety devices. The defendants' attorneys were charged with proving arson, thereby absolving their clients of liability and relieving their insurance companies of paying the huge claim. In the end, however, no arson theory could be substantiated, and only the hotel operators, not it's owner were found to be liable. Although the plaintiffs were awarded over .5 million in damages, the hotel operators were only insured for 0,000 and most of the families received less than ,000 each.
The Fire's Effect On Fire Safety Codes
Because the building had a brick exterior, the owners were able, under certain insurance provisions, to classify the hotel as "fireproof" even though it was not fitted with fire escapes, fire sprinklers nor an alarm system. Indeed, the exterior did not burn in the fire, but the contents did. The furniture, carpet, hallways, wainscoting and painted walls were highly flammable. Even the stairwells were constructed of wood and became impassible when the fire chose this as its main route of destruction.
Up until the time of the Winecoff fire, no national codes had been required and decisions about fire safety were left to the discretion of local city officials, . Mayor Hartsfield had once argued that Atlanta property owners should be spared the hassle of retrofitting existing buildings in order to bring them up to code due to the enormous expense involved. He reasoned, "Why should we make it safe in Atlanta when Atlantans going to other towns would be in the same danger?" His position was quite popular with the property owners.
As a result of the Winecoff disaster, many fire officials became enraged and cried, "Never again!" It was determined that local officials could not be relied upon to make responsible decisions about fire safety, and national safety codes were established and strictly enforced. The response to this tragedy was so intense that officials in several southern cities ordered all existing buildings be retrofitted and brought up to code within seven days or be shut down. It is a testament to the effectiveness of these newly enforced codes that in this country there has never been a hotel fire since in which so many lost their lives.
The Winecoff After The Fire
In April of 1951, the hotel reopened as the Peachtree on Peachtree Hotel, complete with fire alarms and fire escapes. But competing hotels were cropping up all around Atlanta's retail district and by 1967, with no buyers in sight, the hotel was donated to the Georgia Baptist Convention who used it as housing for the elderly. In 1981, the hotel was sold to a real estate conglomerate and would pass through the hands of no less a dozen more buyers over the next twenty five years. Each had high hopes but no solid deal to resurrect the hotel ever materialized. Today, in 2005, the hotel remains an eyesore and a thorn in the side of a city whose officials would have demolished it decades ago if it did not reside above the city's railway system, preventing it from being imploded. To this day, the building stands as a hollowed-out shell reminding us of the tragedy that occurred there. The curse of the Winecoff Hotel solidly remains and many local merchants claim that the building is haunted, having seen ghosts puttering about on more than on occasion.
The Winecoff Hotel Fire of 1946 held the unenviable honor of being known as the deadliest hotel fire in the world and maintained that title until 1971 when one hundred and sixty-two people lost their lives in a hotel fire in Seoul, South Korea. The Winecoff remains, to this day, the worst hotel fire in American history. The fate of this once glamorous and celebrated hotel is unclear, but one thing is certain, it must never be forgotten.
Arnold Hardy was a 26-year-old graduate student at Georgia Tech the night he heard the sirens roaring downtown from all directions. It was 1946, and he was living upstairs in a rooming house at West Peachtree and North Avenue, within walking distance of Tech, where he was working in both the research lab and physics department.
Hardy was still up at 4 o'clock on the morning of Dec. 7. After taking his date home in Buckhead, he had waited an hour for a trolley back to town. He had just taken his shoes off when he heard the sirens. An amateur photographer, he hurriedly called the fire department.
"Press photographer. Where's the fire?" he asked
Hardy called a taxi. The cab picked him up and raced toward the corner of Peachtree and Ellis. With his prized Speed Graphic camera and five flashbulbs in his pocket, Hardy sprinted the final blocks.
He was the first photographer there.
The windows of the 15-story Winecoff Hotel were backlit by orange flames. Guests--jumping out of panic or falling from makeshift ropes of bedsheets as they tried to escape the terrible smoke--were landing and dying on Peachtree Street. Amid the pandemonium and a cacophony of sirens, Hardy went to work. He took a shot that spanned the front of the building and the faces of the doomed in the windows--the mutely pleading, hopeless faces.
When he was down to his final flashbulb--one had exploded in the cold night air--Hardy decided to try for a picture of a falling or jumping guest. When his viewfinder found a dark-haired woman falling midair at the third floor, her skirt billowing, he snapped the shutter open for 1/400th of a second.
With his photography completed, Hardy heard a fireman and policeman at a drugstore across the street discussing calling the store owner so they could obtain medical supplies. He told them to break the door open. When they said they wouldn't he kicked it open himself. He was quickly arrested.
As the Red Cross moved into the store to set up a first-aid station and make sandwiches and coffee for the firemen, Hardy was led off to jail. Upon being released on his own recognizance, he headed for the darkroom at the Tech research search lab. He developed his film and struck out for the Associated Press office downtown.
The AP offered him 0 for exclusive rights to his pictures. He said he wanted 0--and got it. His final photograph--the one of the jumping woman--would be reprinted around the world the following day, and be on magazine covers for weeks. The fire had killed 119 people and drawn international coverage as the worst hotel fire in the history of the world. A few months later, Hardy became the first amateur photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The AP gave Hardy a 0 bonus the day after the fire, but he has never received another cent for its frequent use. With the 47th anniversary of the Winecoff fire approaching, Hardy's famous photograph is back in the spotlight. It appears on the cover of The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America 's Deadliest Hotel Fire.
The book reports for the first time that the fire was set by an arsonist. It also identifies the "jumping lady" for the first time. She was Daisy McCumber, a 41-year-old Atlanta secretary who--contrary to countless captions--survived the 11-story jump. She broke both legs, her back, and her pelvis. She underwent seven operations in 10 years and lost a leg, but then worked until retirement. She died last year in Jacksonville Fla., having never admitted even to family that she was the woman in Hardy's photo.
The book also tells the dramatic story of James D. "Jimmy" Cahill, IM '48, who became one of the fire's heroes. Cahill, now retired from an academic career in Charlotte, N.C., had returned from the service and was staying at the hotel while applying to re-enter Georgia Tech. After escaping from the front side of the hotel, he raced around to the back to rescue his mother.
Cahill entered an adjacent building and stretched a board across a 10-foot alley to his mother's sixth-floor room. He crawled across the board and brought his mother to safety. Firemen quickly followed his lead and, with Cahill's help, rescued many guests who had no other escape from the backside of the hotel.
Hardy, a mechanical engineer, retired earlier this year, and sold Hardy Manufacturing Co. of Decatur, builder of medical X-ray equipment to his son. He retired from amateur photography decades earlier, shortly after realizing his photos would always be measured against his Pulitzer Prize winner. Hardy's goal that night had been to capture the futility of the whole scene before him. "It upset me so much that of all those trucks--there there were about 18 in the front of the building--I saw only two nets," he said. "I thought to myself, 'I'd love to take a picture that would just stir up the public to where they would do something about this and equip every truck in the city with a net.'"
Hardy's horrifying photo accomplished much more.
The Winecoff did not have fire escapes, fire doors, or sprinklers, yet had called itself fireproof. Quickly, fire codes changed nationwide. The Winecoff became a watershed event in the history of fire safety. The 119 did not die in vain--their deaths made hotels safer for Americans then and now. And the work Hardy did one night as a 26-year-old graduate student was one of the main reasons.
Arnold Hardy, Dies at age 85
Arnold Hardy, 85, took Pulitzer-winning photo
By KAY POWELL
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/07/07
Arnold Hardy, the first amateur photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize, was a reluctant celebrity.
His photograph of a woman plunging from a window of the burning Winecoff Hotel on Dec. 7, 1946, is the defining image of the nation's deadliest hotel fire.
Arnold Hardy's photo prompted improvements in fire codes.
Hardy's Pulitzer-winning photo of a woman falling from an upper floor of the hotel. The woman survived and was identified in photos as Daisy McCumber.
For Mr. Hardy, then a 24-year-old Georgia Tech graduate student and lab assistant, the photograph, the publicity and the Pulitzer Prize were bittersweet, said his son Glen Hardy of Decatur.
"He stood on the sidewalk and watched people plummet to their deaths," his son said. "He had almost a post-traumatic response to that.
"It wasn't just a lucky snapshot," his son said. "It was technically a very complicated photograph to take. He had to consider lighting, temperature. He was working hard to get that photograph, to capture a moving object in pitch black darkness. He tweaked his camera to its limits."
Not long after, Mr. Hardy turned down a job from the Associated Press, married and founded a business that designs and manufactures X-ray equipment.
"The only pictures I've taken since then," Mr. Hardy said in a 2000 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, "have been family and vacations."
Mr. Hardy, 85, of Stone Mountain died at Emory University Hospital Wednesday of complications following hip surgery. The funeral is at 2 p.m. today &madah;the anniversary of the fire— at A.S. Turner & Sons.
Mr. Hardy had earned his degree in physics, and photography was his hobby. He bought a 0 Speed Graphic that folded into a box carrying case. To pay for it, he thought he could earn freelance money shooting Tech athletic events.
On that fateful Saturday, he returned to his Midtown rooming house about 3 a.m. after a date. He heard sirens screaming, called the fire department to get the location, grabbed his camera and headed to the Peachtree Street hotel where 280 guests were registered.
He had five flashbulbs, four after one of them burst from the cold. He took three pictures. Then, with his final flash bulb, he trained his lens on the mezzanine where bodies were bouncing on the awning and striking the marquee. He noticed a woman who was trying to climb down a rope and lost her grip, the article said.
Mr. Hardy captured her fall, her dress flying above her head and her white underpants stark against the hotel. He developed his film at Tech, and it was about 6 a.m. when he saw the image of the woman in free fall. He called AP and sold the picture for 0.
Mr. Hardy continued his freelance photography until an industrial fire led him to retire his press card. "I went out there and hung around a while; there wasn't anything worth shooting," he said. "But the next day my picture appeared in the paper with some caption about the Winecoff photographer looking for another prize." Mr. Hardy did not want people to think of him as some kind of ambulance-chaser.
He used the Speed Graphic only for personal photographs until the camera was stolen in the 1970s, his son said. After that, "he would find some old camera at a garage sale for and take it apart and fix it and take a few pictures with it, then get another one."
Mr. Hardy was a perfectionist, and that influenced his career making X-Ray equipment. He spent so much time perfecting his designs and equipment, he had to sell to high-end businesses such as medical equipment suppliers or airlines, said his son, who bought Hardy Manufacturing Co. in Decatur from his father.
"He always was designing or building some piece of medical equipment or a treehouse for me," he said. After retiring in 1987, Mr. Hardy, who enjoyed sailing, designed and began building a mini-houseboat but never launched it.
"One thing he took great pride in," his son said, "is that after his photograph was published worldwide, fire codes were changed all over the country and maybe the world."
Survivors include his wife, Lorraine Hardy; a daughter, Nancy Cooper of Stockbridge; three stepsons, John F. Weber III of Stockbridge, Warren D. Weber of Seattle and Keith D. Weber of Austin, Texas; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.