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Authors unlock clues about room key after Atlanta hotel fire

December 11, 2016

In this Dec. 7, 1946 photo, a woman leaps from an upper story to escape the burning Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta. Seconds later the woman crashed to her death on the hotel marquee. An amateur photographer captured the horror of a woman leaping to escape flames roaring through the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta in 70 years ago, killing 119 people and leading President Truman to call for new fire safety codes nationwide. (AP Photo/Arnold Hardy)

ATLANTA (AP) — The antique, skeleton-type keys on display at the Atlanta History Center are from two separate rooms on the top floor of the Winecoff Hotel, site of the nation’s deadliest hotel fire 70 years ago this month.

The keys, along with a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a woman falling from the burning building, are part of the center’s current exhibit, “Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta.”

The exhibit informs visitors how the Winecoff blaze, which killed 119 people on Dec. 7, 1946, led to new fire safety codes across the nation.

When the keys went on exhibit, they raised questions among the Atlanta History Center’s staff. Donald Rooney, the director of exhibitions, wondered: “Whose keys were they?”

The vast majority of guests in rooms on the hotel’s top floor perished in the blaze, survivor Richard Hamil said in an interview last week. Hamil, who was 9 years old at the time, escaped by crawling across a ladder 15 stories above an alley to reach the safety of the Mortgage Guarantee Building.

Hotel guests were screaming in agony, recalled Hamil, who lives in Dawsonville. Guests tied bed sheets together to create “fragile lifelines” that hung from windows, wrote Associated Press reporter E.J. Hosch, who saw four women leap to their deaths.

“A piercing wail traced the descent of those who jumped, tapering off like the eerie scream of a shell disappearing into the distance,” Hosch wrote.

Research by two authors identified the hotel guest whose room number is etched on one of the keys in the Atlanta History Center’s exhibit.

Bill Berry, a U.S. Marine, was staying in Room 1626 that night, authors Sam Heys and Allen Goodwin found while researching their book, “The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America’s Deadliest Hotel Fire.”

Berry, 25, of Cedartown, Georgia, had survived the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II, according to the book. He was killed in the fire.

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