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Gulf Hotel Fire
September 7, 1943


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The worst loss of life in a single fire in Houston's history occurred shortly after midnight on Tuesday, September 7, 1943. Fifty-five people were killed and dozens injured when the Gulf Hotel at 615 Preston burned. About 40 guests escaped down a fire escape or by jumping from the three-story building. The fire apparently started from a smoldering mattress ignited by a cigarette.

The hotel occupied the second and third floors of an old brick building on the northwest corner of Preston and Louisiana, only a block from the bus terminal. It offered beds for less than 40 cents per night, cots for 20 cents. All 87 beds were occupied, some rooms by two occupants, and 40 cots had been rented. The hotel's registry listed 133 names that night. Most of the guests were middle aged men.

Clerk Walter Chappell smelled smoke in the middle of the night. He searched the hotel and found a smoldering mattress on the second floor. After dousing the mattress with a bucket of water, he and several guests lugged the damaged mattress to a nearby hall closet. Chappell returned to the lobby and soon noticed the odor of smoke getting stronger. Seconds later, he heard cries of "Fire" echoing from upstairs.

Six blocks away at central fire station, Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams and his men received an alarm for the fire at 12:50 A.M. "As we started out of the station, we could see the reflection of the fire against the sky," he recalled. The front of the building was a sheet of flames when he rolled up in front of the building. He immediately sounded a general alarm.

Ted Felds, director of the Harris County Emergency Corps, arrived seconds ahead of the firefighters. The fire escape on the Preston Street side was jammed with escaping guests. Some were one-legged on crutches and had clogged the fire escape. Felds had to break off a crutch that had gotten stuck in the drop ladder before it could be lowered. He carried several men down to the street.

"Some just started jumping," Felds said. As he leaned over to pick up one of the men who had jumped, a body came hurdling down and struck him on the shoulder. The impact knocked Felds to the sidewalk.

Adding to the fuel load of the many beds were wooden partitions that had been constructed to form rooms. The blaze spread rapidly, and most of the men who escaped the fire were dressed only in their underclothes. The interior stairs were consumed early by the spreading fire.

No exit lights had been installed at the exits. Fire Marshal Howard Matthews told reporters the next morning that the hotel had been cited a few days earlier for failure to install the exit lights.

Many of the injured were taken to Jefferson Davis Hospital and Saint Joseph Hospital. Dozens of volunteers, including a few doctors, rendered first aid at the scene. Two men died at the scene after jumping from the hotel. Fifteen others died at the hospitals.

Firefighters battled the fire for two hours before they were able to enter the building and search for victims. Thirty-eight bodies were recovered from inside. One of the bodies hung out of a third-floor window after the man had been unable to escape.

In all, 55 persons lost their lives in the Gulf Hotel fire. Another 36 were injured. Many of the victims, including 23 who were never identified, were buried in a mass funeral at the South Park Cemetery. This was the largest funeral ever in Houston, and no fire in the city's history took more lives.

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