Friday, April 21, 2006

After 60 Years: A New Eyewitness Steps Forward

Dear Mr. Goodwin,

I read your book on the Winecoff fire when it first came out and have wondered how to get in touch with you ever since. I was present on the street on that terrible night. I had been to a high school dance and afterward had driven downtown to meet some friends at an all-night restaurant for a late night breakfast. On my way home, as I drove up the street beside the hotel, I heard horrifying screams coming from the alley behind the hotel. A small crowd was gathering and I parked the car to see what was happening. At that moment I heard the sirens of the approaching fire trucks.

As the firefighters were getting organized it became apparent that they did not have the manpower to handle the nets and they asked for volunteers from bystanders. I was one who did volunteer and was there throughout the night and even assisted in carrying out bodies the next morning.

At sixty years removed my recollections are just a confused blur highlighted by a few snapshot memories. I cannot reconstruct a time line of where I was or how long I spent in any given activity or how much as just a spectator. I did identify several incidents in which I was actively involved, particularly the net jump of the man I now know was named Alvin Millman. I don't know how many men are supposed to man those nets but I do know we didn't have enough. The net did break Mr. Millman's fall but he hit the ground pretty hard. I was surprised and gratified that he got up and walked away apparently uninjured.

From my recollection your account of the events on the street was stunningly accurate, so much so that I almost wished I had not read your book. I found it most unsettling as you can imagine.

Reliving the events of that awful night is something that I approach reluctantly. As an eight year old child I was rescued from a house fire by a neighbor who caught me as I jumped from a second story window. That fire took the lives of my mother and my younger brother. I do believe that was the cause of my eagerness to give assistance when asked and of my staying through the night. I believe it also contributed to the deep depression that enveloped me for several days following the Winecoff tragedy. But, thanks be, the seventeen year old psyche is resilient.
Jonathan Phelps

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