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'It was going to take a miracle' | Survivor recounts deadly Atlanta hotel fire 75 years later

The fire killed 119 people, including four Gainesville High School students who were honored Tuesday afternoon. Richard Hamil was able to get away at 9 years old.

ATLANTA — It has been 75 years since 119 people died from a fire in Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel. To this day, it is the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history. That hotel is still standing in downtown Atlanta. However, today it is known as Ellis Hotel

It is on the 15th floor where Richard Hamil was staying with his father, Carlos, who was a math teacher and faculty advisor at Rome High School. Carlos, eight students and his 9-year-old son Richard were all staying at the Winecoff, attending a YMCA Youth Assembly that tragic night.

"You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," Richard said. "It was very dense, heavy smoke. My dad said to us, 'I don't think we're going to make it'. He could see that it was going to take a miracle."

Credit: Provided.

That miracle came in the form of a ladder. For nearly four hours, they tried filling up the bathtub with water, lighting a lamp and breathing into towels to survive.

"You're trying to survive... you're thinking about how you're going to get out," he said.

Richard, his father and a woman from Mississippi were the only ones who survived from the 15th floor.

"A lot of people did a lot of things like tying sheets together... getting down that way. A lot of sheets broke and they went down. There were people throwing kids out the window, people were walking the ledges of the building trying to find a way out," he said. "It was a terrible scene."

Of the 119 deaths, four were Carlos' students.

"He never got over the fact that he was in charge of four boys that got killed," his son said. "He never got over that."

Taking part in the same conference December 7th, 1946 were four Gainesville High School students. The four senior girls were staying a few floors below Richard.

Tuesday, on the 75th anniversary of the fire, a plaque re-dedication took place at their high school. Originally it was a wall plaque, and it has since moved onto stone. Richard and Frances' nieces were in attendance.

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"I grew up on the heels of this tragedy," said Fran Smith, who was named after Frances. "I think it marked my life."

She recalls growing up with a photo of Frances on one end of a desk and flowers on the other end.

"Frances Thompson - though she died at the early age of 17 - was always part of our lives," Fran added. 

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Frances' family says she was the baby of the family. Frances loved to dance, play piano and was homecoming queen.

Susan Bagwell says this tragedy impacted their family in many ways.

"There could've been other cousins that we had celebrations with instead of being here today and having this remembrance," she said. "Our grandmother could've lived longer."

Credit: Provided.

Frances' name along with Gwen McCoy, Suzanne Moore and Sue Mitchum are all engraved on a new plaque on their high school. Frances Thompson and Gwen McCoy share a headstone in Gainesville.

Mary Jo Powell was supposed to go to the Winecoff Hotel that day for the conference. Fate had other plans for her, so she attended the ceremony to honor her friends who passed away.

"I had a date with my boyfriend at the time who was my husband," Powell said. "I was lucky. I remember all of them really well. We were good friends."

Credit: Provided.

In the 75 years since, the Winecoff Hotel fire has inspired change in fire codes and fueled new laws that would make buildings safer, including fire escapes and sprinkler systems.

"The building was supposed to not be able to burn and it did not burn but everything inside of it, including many people, did," said Fran.

While Richard says he's been able to go to hotels since, that night he will never forget.

"We were spending the night one night in the Omni Hotel, which is down in Atlanta and the fire alarm went off. I panicked," he remembered. "It's always in the back of your mind."

The cause of the fire is still debated. 

Back then, inspectors thought the fire was started by a carelessly lit cigarette that was thrown onto a mattress. Authors of a book titled 'The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Fire', suggest there's evidence of arson. To read that book, click here.

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