Editor’s Note: Today, December 7, 2012, marks the 66th anniversary of the tragic Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta in which 119 people died, the worst hotel fire in U. S. history. Among the dead were four Thomaston high school girls and their chaperone. Last year, on the 65th anniversary, The Thomaston Times ran a story by Marie Marsh on the fire as it related to Thomaston. This year, Chet Wallace, another Winecoff Fire researcher, has put together another story of how the victims’ families were and have been affected.
Tragedy affects people in so many different ways whether one is a survivor or a family member of a victim. It’s as if a stone has been dropped in the water and a ripple affect occurs. It affects a wife, husband, siblings or parents first and then extends to aunts, uncles and cousins. It not only touches the family during the immediate time of the tragedy but ripples in time to later generations.
The Winecoff Hotel fire of December 7, 1946 was no exception. The worst hotel fire in U.S. history occurred in downtown Atlanta, Georgia taking 119 lives and affecting their families for generations. Just about every family involved in the fire has been affected in the sense of a fear of fire or not wanting to stay in a hotel above the first or second floor.
There were five beautiful young ladies from the town of Thomaston who perished in the fire. Mary Minor was a teacher from R.E. Lee Institute and also a sponsor for the school Tri-Hi-Y Club. She had taken four of her students in the Tri-Hi-Y Club to a youth assembly for a weekend of leadership meetings and fun. With her were Earlyne Adams, Christy Hinson, Patsy Uphold and Virginia Torbert. All five ladies would perish in suite 1430 and were found laid across one of the double beds of the room in a total state of calm. It was almost as if they were asleep, but they had known what they were up against because Patsy Uphold’s Bible was found open to the 14th chapter of John. The verse says in part “Let not your hearts be troubled; Ye believe in God believes also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions…” It is believed Mary Minor led them all in prayer with the hopes that they would be rescued. But that wasn’t to be.
The five families of Thomaston affected by this tragedy would gather together to console each other in weekly Bible meetings for the next several years starting in January of 1947. Local citizens of Thomaston, including the parents of all of the victims, gathered in the home of Patsy Uphold’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. A.L. Uphold. The inspiration for the Bible meetings was because of Patsy Uphold’s devotion to God and the fact that her Bible was found in their hotel room. They talked with the Lord and sang hymns and read from the Bible to comfort themselves. As the services went on, so did the growth in attendees. Tears would flow at the earlier meetings, but as time went on, the soothing presence of God started to heal the bereaved. One of the services was even attended by former Georgia Governor M.E. Thompson. Every minister in Thomaston had, at one time or another, been involved in these Tuesday evening services.
Friends as well as family were affected by this tragedy as well. Many of the classmates of the R.E. Lee graduating class of 1947 remember all four girls fondly, as well as their favorite teacher. Some remember the first day back to school after the funerals. One was sitting in Ms. Shehee’s class that morning and remembers Ms. Shehee calling the roll. Earlyne Adams was the name called first. Immediately she and the students broke down in grief.
Al Hinson, Christy Hinson’s brother, remembers asking his father Lamar one time “you don’t ever enjoy Christmas, do you?” A lot of bad memories occurred during that time of year such as the fire. It was also a busy time of year to have to start thinking about filing taxes for April. Al Hinson dropped the subject and then the following year Lamar went on a trip for Christmas to visit his seven other brothers in South Carolina. A car wreck occurred and one of his brothers’ wives was killed. She was 21 and had an infant. Lamar would not talk about the fire too much because of all of the hardship he had experienced with the fire, as well as other tragic events in his life. His wife Christine was more open about the fire but didn’t dwell on it. She said when she learned of the fire, “If they didn’t live through the fire please don’t let them be burned”… and they weren’t. Years later Christine would say “It’s something you never get over… It just takes time to be less painful.”
Mimi Duncan, Mary Minor’s daughter, was only three years old at the time her mother died in the fire. Her grandmother, Mary’s mother, would always say one of the hardest things for her in dealing with Mimi after the fire was explaining to her granddaughter where her mother was. They lived right down the road from R.E. Lee Institute and Mary would walk to school every day to teach. Mary’s mother would give Mimi a bath and get her ready and they would sit on the big front porch waiting for Mary to come home from teaching. After the fire, Mimi would still expect her mother to come home and her grandmother tried to tell her that her mother was an angel and in heaven but it didn’t register with young Mimi. Mimi would say, “You think my mother’s coming home today? Let’s go sit on the porch.” This happened over and over again for quite some time. Mimi was at her grandmother’s house that Saturday of the fire when Gussie Kass, a very good friend of Mary’s, had called to find out the latest information. Mimi answered the phone asking, “Is this mama?” Gussie, immediately consumed with grief, had to put the phone down.
Barbara Harrell explained that she was affected by the death of her sister Virginia Torbert more so because she and her brother were still living at home with Mr. and Mrs. Torbert. They had two older sisters, but they had moved out of the house by the time Virginia was in high school. Barbara would have dreams for years after the fire that her sister Virginia was coming home. The Torbert home had many trees in the backyard. Barbara would dream Virginia was coming home as an angel floating through the trees to come and knock on the backyard kitchen window. Barbara would, in her dream, go to the window to open it but would have trouble getting it open. She would always wake up before she was able to get the window open.
Sybil Uphold, sister-in-law of Patsy Uphold, never would know Patsy. She would marry Patsy’s brother Al after the fire. She always heard Al or his mother talk about Patsy. Sybil says that it’s important for families affected by the fire to talk about it. Many people affected by the fire have feelings bottled up that need to come out in the open. There are times when Sybil feels that people have stopped talking about the fire and she feels that it’s important to talk about it because it helps the grieving process and helps future generations to know what happened and to keep the memory of the 119 victims alive.