The Gulf Hotel fire claimed 55 lives in the early-morning hours of September 7, 1943 in downtownHouston, Texas. This fire remains the cause of the worst loss of life in a fire in the city’s history.
The hotel was located on the northwest corner of Louisiana and Preston Streets and occupied the upper two floors of a three-story brick building, with a variety of businesses occupying the first floor. It was an inexpensive hotel near the city’s bus depot, and reportedly had 87 beds, most divided from one another by thin wooden partitions, and 50 cots available for half the price of a bed. That night the guest log showed 133 names registered.
Shortly after midnight, the desk clerk was alerted to a smoldering mattress in a room on the second floor. The clerk and a few guests thought they had extinguished the burning mattress and moved it to a closet in the second floor hall. Moments later, the mattress erupted in flames. The fire spread quickly through the second floor and headed toward the third. There were two exits from the hotel, both on the Preston side, one an interior staircase, the other an exterior fire escape.
The fire department’s central station was located only a few blocks away at Preston and Caroline Streets. The alarm was received at 12:50 a.m. Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams was the first to arrive at the burning hotel where he summoned a general alarm as he witnessed flames shooting from windows and the roof.
Ted Felds of Harris County’s Emergency Corps arrived at about the same time and noticed many men on the fire escape, including a few on crutches, who were slowing the progress of others behind them still trying to escape.
Two men died at the scene after jumping from the hotel’s windows. There were 15 other fatalities in area hospitals. Firefighters recovered 38 bodies from the burned out building. In all, 55 people died in the fire and more than 30 were injured. A mass funeral was held for 23 victims of the fire who were never identified and they were buried at the South Park Cemetery in Houston.
One of my favorite books is called “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. It’s about the dust storms and resulting dust bowl in the 1930s and what precipitated them. And how people coped (usually by leaving.)