Flophouse fire Texas’ deadliest hotel blaze

By Bartee Hailie
Minutes after midnight on Sep. 7, 1943, a fire broke out in a fleabag hotel a couple of blocks from the bus station in downtown Houston. The Gulf Hotel was a residence of last resort for the old, the infirm and the able-bodied who had come to Houston to look for work during the Second World War. Located on the corner of Louisiana and Preston in a seedy section of the central business district, the flophouse filled the second and third floors of a threestory building that had seen better days. What it lacked in amenities The Gulf made up for in price. Eighty-seven beds went for 40 cents a night, and one of the 50 cots could be rented for 20 cents. Walter Campbell, the desk clerk who held down the fort from four in the afternoon until four the next morning, had close to a full house on the night of Sep. 6, 1943. By his count, there were 133 registered guests. At a quarter past twelve, Campbell heard someone shout that he smelled smoke. He left his post and went from room to room on the second floor in search of the source. He found it in 201, where the occupant had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand. The 53 year old clerk dumped a bucket of water on the smoldering mattress, removed the singed sheet and tossed it in the dirty linen bin in a storage closet. Considering the situation handled, he told the careless guest to go back to sleep and returned to the front desk. Half an hour later, a commotion on the third floor required Campbell’s personal attention. After settling the petty dispute, he went back downstairs to find the wall behind the front desk all ablaze. He turned on his heel, ran to the nearby pay phone and called the fire epartment. “After I made the call, I started rousing people on the second floor,” the lone employee later told report - ers. “Then I called the people on the third floor and told them the hotel was on fire.” Irvin Dueserhoff, a 20 year old defense plant worker, was reading in bed when he noticed the room filling up with smoke. He threw on some clothes and headed for the hotel’s one and only fire escape. As he passed an open door, Dueserhoff saw an elderly man sitting on the edge of his bed surrounded by a sea of flames. “I couldn’ t get to him, and he just sat there rocking back and forth as he burned to death.” In a hospital-bed interview, a middle-aged survivor relived his near-death experience: “I looked up and saw the fire coming through the ceiling. My room was near the stairway. I rushed down the stairway onto the street. “Then, realizing I had left my draft registration card, social security card and birth certificate under my bed, I went back up the stairs and got them.” It was during his second escape from the fully enveloped structure that he suffered second and third-degree burns. The Galveston Daily News reported: “The entire night shift of the fire department fought the flames, aided by 50 auxiliary firemen. Fifty auxiliary police officers, the Harris County emergency corps, military police and naval shore patrol officers assisted the fire - men in controlling the crowd and searching for bodies.” The assistant fire chief said unequivocally, “It was the most horrible thing that I have ever seen in my (30-year) career.” “I saw men crawling down the fire escape,” another veteran firefighter shuddered. “Some of them didn’t have clothes on. I saw others run down the stairway and out into the street. Many of those were unclothed also.” Unable to push their way through the mob on the crowded fire escape, several desperate men leaped to their deaths from the hotel windows. One of the doomed jumpers landed squarely on top of the director of the county emergency corps. Only slightly injured by the impact, the fortunate official reported seeing at least ten bodies “on the pavement stretched out.” When the inferno was finally extinguished after a two-hour battle, firemen found 44 victims in the gutted hotel. According to the justice of the peace at the scene, most suffocated to death before the flames reached them. Thirty-two residents were treated for a host of injuries ranging from broken bones to severe burns. Sixteen were released after receiving first aid, but the rest faced weeks and, in some cases, months of hospitalization. The final and official death toll was 55. Of that four and a half dozen, 23 were never positively identified. A mass funeral was held for those nameless vic - tims, and they were buried together in a local cemetery. Coming six years after the New London school explosion and four years before the Texas City disaster, the flophouse tragedy was soon forgotten. But The Gulf Hotel Fire remains the deadliest blaze of its kind in the history of the Lone Star State. Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 and invites you to visit his web site at barteehaile.com. 

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