Terminal Hotel Fire
May 16, 1938 - Downtown Atlanta has gone through countless changes for reasons as diverse as the recently announced exodus of the Braves for Cobb County to Gen. William T. Sherman’s Civil War destruction. The Photo Vault looks back to May 16, 1938, when the Terminal Hotel burned to the ground taking dozens of lives and altering the city skyline.
In the wee hours of the morning, while most guests were asleep, the five-story structure caught fire. Located at Spring and Mitchell Streets across from Terminal Station in the Hotel Row District, the building was fully ablaze just minutes after the alarm bell sounded around 3 a.m.
Published reports say the fire broke out in the basement, but soon after fire crews arrived the roof collapsed. Flames and smoke shot skyward and in a moment every floor was ablaze.
The hotel’s proximity to the rail station made it a popular spot for railroad men. At $1 and up per day, there were about 75 occupied rooms at the time of the fire.
The Atlanta Journal reported that several people were killed leaping from the building. A Columbus, Ga., railroad engineer jumped from a fourth-floor window. His body tumbled across the street. He was dead when rescuers reached him. One victim was found dead on a second-floor ledge of the hotel court, where he had struck in a leap for safety.
Firefighters reported that once the blaze was out, they found a family dead in one room — a woman in a rocking chair, a man and a small boy stretched across the bed, with a little girl kneeling by it. And the body of a man was found sprawled on window ledge near scaffolding set up the day before by painters. If he had been able to crawl 18 inches farther, firefighters said, it was possible he might have been rescued from the blazing inferno.
The building became unstable so quickly that traffic for blocks around was jammed as police roped off the area against danger of falling walls.
Reports vary on the number of victims — as few as 27 to as many as 35. Some were burned to death and others suffocated. Many of the bodies were horribly mangled in the collapse of floors and steel work. But the tragedy went down in history as one of the worst hotel fires the United States has ever seen. Credit: Atlanta Journal staff