Hotel Roosevelt fire
The Hotel Roosevelt fire, on December 29, 1963, was the
worst fire Jacksonville, Florida had seen since the Great
Fire of 1901, and it contributed to the worst one-day death
toll in the city's history. Twenty-two people died, mostly
from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Hotel Roosevelt was, at the time, one of only two luxury
hotels in the city's downtown, with many restaurants and
businesses located on its ground floor, including a ballroom
and a barber shop. At the year's end, the Hotel Roosevelt
hosted hundreds of travelers who came to attend the Gator
The fire was said to be started after a cigarette was left
unattended in the ground-floor ballroom after a Gator Bowl
celebration, but was in reality started in the ballroom's
ceiling; the old ceiling, which was deemed a fire hazard,
was not removed when the new ceiling was installed, providing
kindling for the fire, which started from faulty wires.
The first calls to the Jacksonville Fire Department were
made at 7:30 a.m. Smoke was traveling throughout the 13-story
building, and hotel visitors climbed out of the smoky building
with the help of other patrons and bedsheets tied together.
Mayor W. Haydon Burns immediately called for assistance
from the U.S. Navy, and eight helicopters were flown to
downtown from Cecil Field and NAS Jacksonville. The airmen
helped the patrons out of the building, and transported
them to a nearby parking lot, where ambulances were already
The fire was extinguished by 9:30 a.m., and it was estimated
that nearly 475 people were saved from the burning building.
After a day of recovering the dead, firefighters found 21
residents dead in their beds from smoke inhalation. In addition,
assistant chief J.R. Romedy collapsed of a heart attack
during the initial rescue efforts, and died at the scene
Aftermath and remembrance
Property damage to the Hotel Roosevelt was immense, and
the hotel was closed in 1964, with most of the hotel's businesses
and staff relocating to the equally upscale Hotel George
Washington. After much renovation, the building was re-opened
as a retirement home, the Jacksonville Regency House, which
closed in 1989.
The former Hotel Roosevelt, located on Adams Street in
downtown, is still standing. The building was placed in
the National Register of Historic Places in February 1991.
Memorials are still held to remember those who died in the
fire (the most recent gathering occurred in December 2003
for the 40th anniversary of the blaze).
By 7:45am, the hotel's doorman called the fire department
to report a fire on the first floor. The fire department
immediately responded with three fire engines, two ladder
trucks, a Fire Chief and two assistant Chiefs. Not one fire
fighter, rookie or veteran would ever forget what they saw
as they drove up to the hotel.
"When I got there that morning there was bed sheets
hanging out, people hanging off the bed sheets, people holding
hands lowering each other from floor to floor." Fire
Chief Miles Bowers was already a veteran in 1963 but that
was the worst human loss he's seen to date. "I remember
it very vividly. It's something that is etched in my mind
and it will be there forever."
Within 45 minutes of firefighters arriving, then Mayor
Haydon Burns called the U.S. Navy for help. The Navy responded
with eight helicopters from Mayport, Cecil Field and NAS
Jacksonville. Guests were lifted from outstretched ladders
on the roof to a nearby city parking lot to waiting ambulances.
As firefighters went to each hotel room, they kicked in
doors giving mouth to mouth too many who were unconscious
while still in their beds. During the rescue of one of their
own, Assistant Chief J.R. Romedy collapsed of a heart attack
in front of a door. Firefighters lined up to continue CPR
until a doctor arrived and performed an emergency tracheotomy
on the site. But that wouldn't be enough to save Romedy's
"It was an awful lot to take in for a young fella."
Captain Rob Sorensen was just three years on the job when
he responded to the Roosevelt Hotel Fire. He was next in
line to give mouth to mouth to Asst. Chief Romedy when the
doctor declared him dead.
Sorensen would eventually become the official videographer
for Jacksonville Fire and Rescue. He says in all the years
he's both put out fire and shot video of them, the Roosevelt
remains the worst tragedy he's ever witnessed. "I know
that I look back at the pictures and the video I have, it
just instantly brings me back to that day. To that tragic
By 9:30am, the flames were out, rescue attempts continued
but the grim job of recovering the dead had begun. More
than 475 people were saved that cold December morning.
100 people including 20 firefighters were treated for injuries,
most of them for smoke inhalation. Firefighters believe
the fire started from a smoldering cigarette left in a first
floor ballroom after a Gator Bowl celebration.
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