Pulitzer Photo

Georgia Tech student was the first photographer at the scene of Atlanta's worst hotel fire
By Sam Heys
Pulitzer Prize Photo
With only five flashbulbs, Georgia Tech student Arnold Hardy used his last one to capture this photo of a woman leaping from the Winecoff Hotel fire. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Arnold Hardy was a 26-year-old graduate student at Georgia Tech the night he heard the sirens roaring downtown from all directions. It was 1946, and he was living upstairs in a rooming house at West Peachtree and North Avenue, within walking distance of Tech, where he was working in both the research lab and physics department.

Hardy was still up at 4 o'clock on the morning of Dec. 7. After taking his date home in Buckhead, he had waited an hour for a trolley back to town. He had just taken his shoes off when he heard the sirens. An amateur photographer, he hurriedly called the fire department.

"Press photographer. Where's the fire?" he asked

"Winecoff Hotel."

Hardy called a taxi. The cab picked him up and raced toward the corner of Peachtree and Ellis. With his prized Speed Graphic camera and five flashbulbs in his pocket, Hardy sprinted the final blocks.

He was the first photographer there.

The windows of the 15-story Winecoff Hotel were backlit by orange flames. Guests--jumping out of panic or falling from makeshift ropes of bedsheets as they tried to escape the terrible smoke--were landing and dying on Peachtree Street. Amid the pandemonium and a cacophony of sirens, Hardy went to work. He took a shot that spanned the front of the building and the faces of the doomed in the windows--the mutely pleading, hopeless faces.

When he was down to his final flashbulb--one had exploded in the cold night air--Hardy decided to try for a picture of a falling or jumping guest. When his viewfinder found a dark-haired woman falling midair at the third floor, her skirt billowing, he snapped the shutter open for 1/400th of a second.

With his photography completed, Hardy heard a fireman and policeman at a drugstore across the street discussing calling the store owner so they could obtain medical supplies. He told them to break the door open. When they said they wouldn't he kicked it open himself. He was quickly arrested.

As the Red Cross moved into the store to set up a first-aid station and make sandwiches and coffee for the firemen, Hardy was led off to jail. Upon being released on his own recognizance, he headed for the darkroom at the Tech research search lab. He developed his film and struck out for the Associated Press office downtown.

The AP offered him $150 for exclusive rights to his pictures. He said he wanted $300--and got it. His final photograph--the one of the jumping woman--would be reprinted around the world the following day, and be on magazine covers for weeks. The fire had killed 119 people and drawn international coverage as the worst hotel fire in the history of the world. A few months later, Hardy became the first amateur photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The AP gave Hardy a $200 bonus the day after the fire, but he has never received another cent for its frequent use. With the 47th anniversary of the Winecoff fire approaching, Hardy's famous photograph is back in the spotlight. It appears on the cover of The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America 's Deadliest Hotel Fire.

The book reports for the first time that the fire was set by an arsonist. It also identifies the "jumping lady" for the first time. She was Daisy McCumber, a 41-year-old Atlanta secretary who--contrary to countless captions--survived the 11-story jump. She broke both legs, her back, and her pelvis. She underwent seven operations rations in 10 years and lost a leg, but then worked until retirement. She died last year in Jacksonville Fla., having never admitted even to family that she was the woman in Hardy's photo.

The book also tells the dramatic story of James D. "Jimmy" Cahill, IM '48, who became one of the fire's heroes. Cahill, now retired from an academic career in Charlotte, N.C., had returned from the service and was staying at the hotel while applying to re-enter Georgia Tech. After escaping from the front side of the hotel, he raced around to the back to rescue his mother.

Cahill entered an adjacent building and stretched a board across a 10-foot alley to his mother's sixth-floor room. He crawled across the board and brought his mother to safety. Firemen quickly followed his lead and, with Cahill's help, rescued many guests who had no other escape from the backside of the hotel.

Hardy, a mechanical engineer, retired earlier this year, and sold Hardy Manufacturing Co. of Decatur, builder of medical X-ray equipment to his son. He retired from amateur photography decades earlier, shortly after realizing his photos would always be measured against his Pulitzer Prize winner. Hardy's goal that night had been to capture the futility of the whole scene before him. "It upset me so much that of all those trucks--there there were about 18 in the front of the building--I saw only two nets," he said. "I thought to myself, 'I'd love to take a picture that would just stir up the public to where they would do something about this and equip every truck in the city with a net.'"

Hardy's horrifying photo accomplished much more.

The Winecoff did not have fire escapes, fire doors, or sprinklers, yet had called itself fireproof. Quickly, fire codes changed nationwide. The Winecoff became a watershed event in the history of fire safety. The 119 did not die in vain--their deaths made hotels safer for Americans then and now. And the work Hardy did one night as a 26-year-old graduate student was one of the main reasons.

The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire, by Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin (Longstreet Press, $19.95).