Dec. 7 has its share of unpleasant memories for Hamil, formerly of Rome, now a resident of Dawsonville. He hit a deer and caused significant damage to his vehicle last year, had problems with an ice storm and barely made it home from church a couple of years ago.
But what happened on Dec. 7, 1946, overshadows all.
Hamil was in Atlanta with his father 66 years ago for a YMCA Youth Assembly when the Winecoff Hotel caught fire and killed 119 people, including four teenagers from Rome.
Charles W. Keith, 15, George W. “Billy” Walden, 16, Lamar Brown, 16, and James “Buzz” Slatton, 16 — all students from the old Rome Boys High School — were killed in the fire that erupted at about 3 a.m. that fateful Saturday morning.
Hamil was nine years old at the time and was staying with his father C.E. Hamil.
“I remember most everything that happened that night,” Hamil said. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t go away.”
He said that it was not unusual for his father to take him to events like the YMCA Youth Assembly. Rome was a small town then and to go to Atlanta was a treat for a 9-year-old in those days.
“I would go with him, mother sometimes would go, but this particular time he and I went,” Hamil said.
Hamil remembers waking up in the middle of the night with sounds of sirens and knowing there was confusion all around up on the 15th floor of the hotel.
“There was no smell of smoke, as I remember, in our room, but when we walked out in the hallway, it was totally engulfed in smoke and you absolutely could not see your hand in front of your face,” Hamil said. “We got confused going back to what we thought was our room and it turned out to be a room for a lady from Mississippi and she was panicked.”
Hamil said that she was ready to jump from the window but that his father was able to talk her into not jumping.
“Everything went through your mind, all scenarios,” Hamil said. “We never lost power in our room the whole time, so we put the desk lamp in the window so hopefully somebody from below would know there was someone there who needed help.”
It was three or four hours before the fire department was able to put a ladder across the street from a nearby building allowing Hamil, his father and others to crawl out of the building to safety.
He said that you could barely drive a truck between the Winecoff and the Mortgage Guarantee Building.
“Those two buildings acted as a chimney, and the smoke coming out of the building had no way to go but up. It came gushing up from the downstairs floors which were on fire.”
Sometime later, the Hamils discovered that Slatton, Walden, Keith and Brown had died in the fire. Four other boys, who were in rooms closer to the ground, were able to escape by sliding down a drainpipe, according to Hamil.
“Dad was devastated. I was too young. I didn’t know any of the boys personally,” Hamil said. “He carried that for his entire life even though it wasn’t in any way his fault. He was a very responsible, caring person and he lived for kids and school. He never, ever got over the loss of the four boys.”
Hamil, who later served in the Army and worked for Monsanto and the John Harlan Company for more than two decades, has been to a number of Winecoff remembrances during the years.
None may have been more touching to him than when the hotel was reopened as the Ellis on Peachtree.
“I met a doctor from Oklahoma who had also been dropped out (of the hotel) by his parents,” Hamil said. “They both perished in the fire.”
The Winecoff opened in 1913, proclaimed by its developers as fireproof. The blaze in 1946 is still the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history.
That fire prompted the development of fire safety codes that are now the standard across the nation.