Remembering the victims of Houston's deadliest fire

HOUSTON – One Houston area man is hoping to complete an act of kindness that began 75 years ago.

Just after midnight on Sept. 7, 1943, a fire ripped through the Gulf Hotel in downtown. Fifty-five men lost their lives, making this fire the deadliest in Houston’s history.

Houston in the 1940s was a growing metropolis filled with opportunity.

“It being wartime, you have a lot of people coming in to Houston looking for war-related work,” said Brady Hutchison, a history instructor at Wharton County Junior College.

Many of those eager for steady income were delivered by bus into downtown. The Gulf Hotel at the corner of Preston and Louisiana was a stone’s throw away from the bus station at that time.

“People getting off the bus, that's going to be one of the first hotels they see downtown,” said Hutchison.

PHOTOS: Looking back at Houston's deadliest fire

Hutchison realizes most people haven't heard of the Gulf Hotel and he wants to change that.

“I first heard about in 2001 and it was kind of in passing,” said Hutchison. “I started looking for information on it and there really wasn't a lot out there.”

Buried in the newspaper archives of Houston's downtown central library and among the photos at the library’s Houston Metropolitan Research Center are the details of the Gulf Hotel's dire history. The Gulf Hotel stood on what is now the parking lot for the Houston Ballet. Hutchison said on the first floor there were shops and a cafe. On the second floor rooms could be rented for $.40 a night and on the third floor there was a communal space where cots could be rented for $.20 a night. The Gulf Hotel accommodated those of more meager means and only men rented the rooms and cots.

According to articles in the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post, a night clerk smelled smoke in room 201. The articles state the clerk found a small fire on a bed sheet and mattress. He doused the flames with a bucket of water and threw the dirty linens in a closet. However, investigators later determined the fire was not completely extinguished when the dirty linens were thrown in a closet with insecticides, solvents, mops and baggage. Less than an hour after finding the initial fire, the clerk noticed heavy amounts of smoke near the office.

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Flames quickly devoured the oil-soaked wood floors and walls of the Gulf Hotel. Many borders became trapped as the fire made an interior staircase inaccessible. Headlines the day of the fire read, "Fire Crazed Men Fight For Chance to Leap To Death."

“Years of oil soaking into the wood, it's kindling basically. All it took was a spark,” said Hutchison. “A fire in there was going to be bad, no matter how it started.”

An assistant fire chief at the time was quoted by newspapers as saying, “It was horrible! It was the most horrible thing I've seen.”

Witnesses also described the horror of trying to escape.

“I'm looking for my friends. I called to them in the room next to mine when I woke up, but the smoke was choking me and I couldn't see,” one survivor was quoted as saying.

Hutchison said it took firefighters two hours to get the flames under control.

“They didn't know how bad it was until they got inside,” said Hutchison.

The old ‘Fire Marshal's Record of Fire Losses and Insurance’ shows a ledger entry reading ’55 persons died.’ The fire was ruled accidental.

“Most of the men were transient workers, more or less, coming in to town to look for work,” said Hutchison. “Many of the victims were in their 60s, even in their early 70s. Some of them were on crutches.”

News of the war turning in our favor quickly eclipsed the horror of the Gulf Hotel, but the city didn't forget.

“The city came together to take care of them,” said Hutchison. “Just average, everyday Houstonians showed up to mourn the loss of people they didn't even know.”

Donations poured in to the Red Cross, which made sure the men were given proper burials in silk-lined, flower draped coffins. Many of the victim’s families could not afford a burial and many of the victims also remained unidentified.

“Nobody in their family necessarily knows they're even staying in that hotel, or may not know they're in Houston,” said Hutchison. “All their families knew was, ‘my son, or my uncle, they left to go to Houston to look for work and we just never heard from them again.’”

An Interfaith service laid 36 of the men to rest at the South Park cemetery in Pearland.

“They buried 21 unidentified people here,” said Hutchison.

A trip to the cemetery brings us to Hutchison's mission. Hutchison, a retired firefighter and arson investigator, wants to raise enough funds to finally place a marker at the burial site. Plans to do that in 1943 never materialized. Only subtle contours of the land now mark their final resting place.

“To me we have a chance to finish it, to write the final chapter,” said Hutchison. “Not just to honor their memory, but also to honor the memory of the citizens of Houston who pitched in to help out.”

Hutchison has created a GoFundMe page to take in donations.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”