Mary Jo Porter Powell was supposed to go to the Tri-Hi-Y convention in Atlanta Dec. 7, 1946, but she had a date with Fred Powell, whom she later married.
Four of her Gainesville High School classmates died that early Saturday morning in the Winecoff Hotel fire that killed 119 in all. They were Gwen McCoy, 17, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. M.J. McCoy; Ella Sue Mitchum, 16, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J.T. Mitchum; Suzanne Moreno Moore, 16, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Moore; and Frances Thompson, 17, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Thompson.
The 75th anniversary of the tragedy will be marked in a ceremony at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7, at Gainesville High School. A plaque dedicated to the four seniors will be unveiled again outside the new cafeteria building near the main school entrance during a brief program, said Sammy Smith, Gainesville school board member.
The plaque originally was placed at the old Gainesville High School building on Washington Street where the Gym of ’36 office building remains today. It later was moved to the current campus outside the old lunch room that was later demolished.
“It was a very sad time,” Mrs. Powell, 91, said of the days at Gainesville High School following the tragedy. “We were all so close, with smaller classrooms and all. Everybody knew everybody.”
Mrs. Powell was among many students and Gainesville residents who attended the funerals. The school had dismissed for the day following a chapel service. Double services were held for Frances Thompson and Suzanne Moore at Central Baptist Church. All but Ella Sue Mitchum, who was buried in Monroe, are buried in Alta Vista Cemetery. Some students served as pallbearers.
The four Gainesville Tri-Hi-Y members were in room 1130 in the Winecoff. Their bodies were burned so badly it took Gainesville dentists Dr. W.H. Miller and Dr. Charles Brice several days to identify them through dental records.
The 1947 Gainesville High yearbook, the Radiator, was dedicated to the four fire victims. Their pictures were displayed on a special page, but they also appeared in photos of the senior class. All were active in other organizations besides the Tri-Hi-Y.
The fire is said to have started on the third floor, apparently from a cigarette on a mattress. Some of the guests jumped from windows to their deaths.
A Gainesville couple, Mr. and Mrs. W.R. Robertson, were among the survivors. Mr. Robertson, manager of the Princeton Hotel in Gainesville, told the Gainesville Eagle they had been Christmas shopping in Atlanta. He was awakened by smoke coming into their 16th-floor Winecoff Hotel room about 3:40 that Saturday morning. They wet towels, hung their heads out the windows and waited to be rescued. Two others joined them in their room. It would be an hour and a half before firefighters rescued them, leading them on a ladder to a neighboring building.
Although the Winecoff advertised itself as fireproof, it came under harsh criticism for the lack of safety measures, including sprinklers and fire escapes. The tragedy caused a demand for increased fire safety in all buildings. The Gainesville News pointed to several buildings in Gainesville that needed improvements. A fire damaged the Brenau College gymnasium a few days after the Winecoff fire.
The public is invited to Tuesday’s ceremony, especially any classmates or others who might have known the four who died. “To borrow a familiar phrase, Dec. 7, 1946, is our own date that will live in infamy,” Sammy Smith said, referring to President Roosevelt’s famous quote after the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column publishes weekly.