Fire Proof: 67 years later, woman keeps grandfather’s story alive
They said the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta wouldn’t burn. They called it fire proof.
On Dec. 7, 1946, it became the scene of the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history. The fire killed 119 people, many of them guests who had come to Atlanta for conferences and Christmas shopping. The public reaction to one man’s photograph of the event made buildings in this country safer.
I wouldn’t know any of this if I didn’t know the granddaughter of Arnold Hardy, the man who took the picture.
Jennifer Hardy works as a waitress at Twain’s in Decatur, Ga. My wife and I always ask for her table if there’s one available in her section. When I mentioned a few months ago that I’d started Decaturish, she suggested I come back one afternoon at the end of her shift. She wanted to tell me her grandfather’s story.
Arnold Hardy died on Dec. 5, 2007 and his funeral was held two days later, which also happened to be the 61st anniversary of the Winecoff tragedy.
Jennifer has become the unofficial curator of her grandfather’s private Winecoff museum. She had books upon books of newspaper clippings, photos and letters that her grandfather had left for her.
It was their special connection. For Jennifer, the story was a source of awe. She first learned about the fire when she had to find a topic for an elementary school assignment.
“I was in probably fifth or sixth grade and I had a teacher that gave us an assignment that said write an essay about a family member who has done something cool, something heroic,” Jennifer said.
She asked her parents for advice and they both told her about her grandfather and the Winecoff.
In 1946, Arnold Hardy was a 24-year-old graduate student at Georgia Tech. He was an amateur photographer as well, and when the fire erupted at the hotel he went to the scene and took his camera, a 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 Speed Graphic, and five flash bulbs. The hotel, located at 176 Peachtree Street, exists today as The Ellis Hotel.
At the time of the fire, America was settling into its post World War II years. According to the book “The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America’s Deadliest Hotel Fire,” structure fires were an all-too common occurrence in the first half of the 20th century. Hundreds of people had died in building fires in the years before the tragedy at the Winecoff.
Many of the fire safety codes that are in place today didn’t exist in 1946. The book, co-authored by Sam Heys and Allen Goodwin, says, “The nation was changing – its population migrating from the country to the city – but the law was not keeping pace.”
Atlanta, like many cities, wasn’t ready. The hotel didn’t have fire escapes. The ladders on the fire trucks weren’t tall enough to reach beyond the 9th floor of the 15-story building. With one bulb left to go, Hardy heard a woman scream. His camera captured the image of Daisy McCumber as she fell. For years she was assumed dead, but later researchers learned that she survived her ordeal.
Hardy sold the photo to the Associated Press for $300 and it eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for photography.
In this short video documentary, Arnold Hardy retells the story of the famous photograph.
I looked at the photos Jennifer had spread out on the table in one of Twain’s enormous booths. I wondered if Hardy would’ve been able to sell the same photo today.
Newspapers ran grisly photos of the fire. Jennifer’s newspaper clips were filled with black and white images of covered bodies and charred remains. Her grandfather’s famous photo captured what was believed to be the last living moments of a woman falling to her death.
Newspaper editors today are sensitive to the shock readers might feel while looking at the graphic details of a human tragedy. In one sense, you could say that Hardy was ahead of his time. He was a citizen journalist in 1946, which was an anomaly. Thanks to cellphone technology that puts the ability to take a photo right at our finger tips, citizen journalism is becoming the norm.
Jennifer told me she didn’t appreciate her grandfather’s achievement until later in her life. She said the photo convinced America that it needed to better protect its buildings from fires like the one that consumed the Winecoff.
She said her grandfather was consumed with guilt about the circumstances surrounding his photo.
“I think he was torn,” Jennifer said. “He was proud as far as an accomplishment. He was interested in photography. He got a camera and took a photo that was award winning. I know it did bother him. He kind of felt like he won an award off someone else’s tragedy, but again, because the fire codes all changed, I think he was proud of that.”
He never took professional photos after that, and his remaining work consists of family vacation photos. He went into business selling X-ray equipment.
“He didn’t want everybody comparing (his other photos) to his winning shot,” Jennifer told me. “He hit his peak early.”
Jennifer kept going back to the impetus for her interest in the story, that assignment a teacher gave her all those years ago in elementary school. It was an assignment asking for something cool, something heroic.
While the photo and the story behind it are both interesting, Hardy wasn’t widely considered to have done anything particularly heroic in 1946.
As it turns out, he did.
It was one minor act of heroism on a harrowing day that produced many heroes. According to Heys and Goodwin, Lane’s drug store was across the street from the Winecoff. The store was locked. The first responders needed the medical supplies inside the store, but were stuck waiting for the owner to arrive to unlock the door. Hardy decided it couldn’t wait and he kicked the door in. A policeman on the scene arrested him for disorderly conduct.
The drugstore owner dropped the charges, but Jennifer said her grandfather did have to pay to replace the door. Because of Hardy’s actions that day, policemen and firefighters had access to medical supplies that they used to treat the wounded.
When Hardy died, most of the press coverage omitted this detail. It reminds me of a deleted scene in a movie. It was interesting, but it didn’t fit neatly within the story of the event itself. But Hardy’s brave moment of disorderly conduct, along with a lifetime of reservations and guilt about his moment of glory, tells me there was a fundamental decency about this man.
It’s the same feeling I get when I talk to his granddaughter Jennifer, who faithfully upholds his legacy. I could almost picture the two of them, this old Southern gentleman explaining an incomprehensible tragedy to a little girl who struggled to understand its significance.
Jennifer continues to add to the small museum. When I visited her a few days ago, she told me she’d found a vase online that had been recovered from the Winecoff. Jennifer decided she needed to own it, yet another link to the horrific day seared in her grandfather’s memory.
I asked Jennifer if there’s something we can learn from that event, even though the two of us are decades removed from it.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s hard to say. I’m proud of him, but looking from an outsider’s standpoint, it’s a photograph.”
Photographs document the events unfolding in front of camera, but sometimes they can also give us a clue about the person holding the camera. While doing some research, I happened to find Jennifer’s Facebook page.
She had posted a picture of this photo she’d taken from the top of Stone Mountain.
Her grandfather lived in Stone Mountain in the final years of his life. When I saw his granddaughter’s photo, I got the feeling that someday there may be another Hardy who wins a prize for taking pictures.