Lessons Learned From The Best

The story begins with Harold Sprayberry and 126 Peachtree Street, downtown Atlanta. And it begins December 7th, one year after the end of World War II. He was a young firefighter at the Winecoff Hotel Fire in downtown Atlanta.

It remains the most deadly fire in the modern history of Atlanta, and one of the worst ever in America. The 5-story Winecoff Hotel was advertised as “completely fireproof” because of its steel construction. But the furnishings could still burn, and the fire quickly spread out of control. There was a common stairway that compounded the efforts to escape.

We have seen it in our time with The World Trade Center attack on September 11th. The desperation was so great, that many people chose to take a chance on surviving the jump from a window, or… worse yet, decided to end their life in a jump to spare them a death from fire or choking smoke. A graduate student at Georgia Tech caught the horrific image of a woman mid-fall in a that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism (note- graphic content- df . Some firefighters were injured by falling victims of the inferno.

Harold Sprayberry told me about efforts to create a kind of “ladder bridge” across a gap in two buildings so allow some to take a chance on crawling across the chasm to safety across the ten foot gap. Others tried to jump, and fatally underestimated the distance. The namesake of the hotel was among the dead

After that horrific fire, and two more high casualty fires in America, building codes started the evolution that brings sprinklers, escape routes, and safer construction today.

Aubrey Morris was a young newspaper reporter who worked the police beat in Atlanta. Word quickly spread that The Winecoff was burning, and it was bad. Aubrey told me that he jumped into a car and rushed to 176 Peachtree.

Aubrey’s world revolved around deadlines, and hard-and-fast deadlines they were. In order to get a morning newspaper typeset and ready for the “Bulldog Edition” of very early morning, there was a deadline. And, if the newspaper wanted to break the news with an “extra” edition, that deadline was as soon as possible.

Incidentally, an Atlanta Journal photographer was being treated for pleurisy at Grady Hospital downtown. That man got up from his hospital bed, dressed, and went to work.

I saw that same look in Aubrey’s eyes as I did in those of the then-young fireman..as they recounted his story from that night. Aubrey cared about people, and he saw the same horrors witnessed by Harold Sprayberry. But both men had a job to do. Aubrey absolutely had to get on the telephone with the newspaper’s city desk and describe what was happening.

It’s Aubrey’s tenacity as a reporter that made him think fast. This was way before two-way radios, and car and handheld cell phones were only in the reality of Flash Gordon, and Commander Cody. But, it would take too long for him to run down the street to find a pay phone booth that was not being used, or even worked. Atlanta would want to know the story, and Aubrey could not leave his post as a witness and an interviewer He told me he knew there was a telephone he could use in a drug store that was close by. I forget how Aubrey broke the glass door of the pharmacy to get to a phone. But, he figured the business owner would know the newspaper would cover the cost.

Aubrey would eventually move from newspaper to WSB Radio, where he also rose in responsibility to eventually become news director. He would be honored with all kinds of awards during his career. His reputation and reliability were so advanced, that in 1962, when several prominent Atlantans and arts patrons died in a plane crash in Paris, the mayor asked Aubrey to travel with him to document the sad round-trip that brought back to Atlanta the remains of many large patrons of the arts.

So, by now you might be ready to say these stories diary one day in the lives of two men who were plunged into both compassion and professionalism. Chief Sprayberry was one of the finest public servants I could imagine. And Aubrey Morris was a friend and mentor who was willing to share a lifetime of experience with a new reporter from Knoxville.

Fast forward to 1989. I was inside the newsroom that was always filled with the chatter of two-way radios. We didn’t just have a scanner, we had several, and they were turned up so we could hear the emergency calls. As a matter of fact, my last day of work at WSB, we had a small gathering that was videotaped. You can clearly hear the radios in the background. And, any cop beat reporter will agree, that on some calls… you can hear the emergency in the voice of the dispatcher.

The first alarm, commercial assignment sent several fire companies to the Peachtree-26th building. I heard something, maybe a report that smoke was showing… something that did not sound right. I grabbed two cassette recorders already in my gear bag, and a huge Panasonic “briefcase” cell phone, and beat it to, literally just up the street from the radio station.

It looked bad from the beginning. The first-due ladder companies were already working to get extended on the south side of the building. People were hanging in the windows, hoping for rescue from choking smoke. The fire was electrical in origin.

I was able to get my car very close to the building.. because most of the equipment was close to the building. In the early days of cellular phones, coverage was hit-and-miss, even in the city. To increase my odds, I carried a cell phone antenna that had about 20 feet of cable that fit the Panasonic set. The business end, the antenna was a full wavelength stick, and on the base, a magnet strong enough to lift a cement block. My general routine covering “spot” news was to first, try to park near some kind of street sign.
I would take my antenna and literally toss it up to the steel sign. With a “whang” the antenna would secure itself, and I had better coverage. I thought of Aubrey that day, and how he had done what he needed to get the story out…. in another age. As it was, I was live, and the solo reporter for the station for at least an hour. I remember on the Ludlow Porch show, having the venerable talk show genius allow me to completely take-over the station, commercial free, as I interviewed witnesses.

Five people died in that fire. The death toll could have been ten times that or more, had firefighters used every skill they possessed to get people out, and in good shape. Many people were rescued from choking smoke that day. Technology in fire fighting was light years beyond what young Harold Sprayberry and his brother firefighters had at hand during the WInecoff. Equipment was updated, and the department had some highly trained personnel.

As soon as we could, I worked with Aubrey Morris to pay for a banquet for every firefighter who worked the Peachtree-26th alarm. There were many donors, small and large, who wanted to make sure the city said “thank you” for averting another Winecoff Fire.

There are no coincidences in life. I met the right people at the right time. They taught me how to tell a story, to care about the people involved, and to follow up after the story leaves the top of the stack. I will forever be in debt to those fine folks, men and women who spanned my whole career. Men and woman who could get there quickly, tell the story, then follow up with a sense of community. If I started to name them all, I would surely leave someone out. So, I’ll let the two men I’ve told you about be the representatives for all who would accept no less than to “get it right”.