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21 Die in Jacksonville Hotel Fire, Miss America Saved

Dec. 29, 1963 - Twenty-one persons died today when a fire in the lobby and ballrooms of the Roosevelt Hotel in Jacksonville, Fla., filled its upper floors with deadly gas and smoke. Officials said the disaster, the worst in the Atlantic port city’s history, injured 62 persons. Alton Crowden, hotel doorman, called the first alarm into the fire department. He said he was in the lobby and “suddenly smoke poured out from everywhere.” Some of the hotel’s 500 guests and employees fled down two enclosed fire escapes before smoke and heat made them impassable. Some slid down the 13-story building’s walls on knotted bedsheets, and at least two clambered down a drainpipe. Others were saved by a dramatic rescue operation by firemen, policemen, and volunteers. One of those who escaped was the current Miss America, Donna Axum of El Dorado, Ark (pictured with her rescuer). Miss Axum was staying at the hotel while in Jacksonville for appearances at the weekend Gator Bowl festivities. She suffered slight smoke inhalation. Others who escaped included members of the Manhattan College and University of Florida basketball teams, which came to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl tournament last Thursday and Friday. Many of the hotel guests had attended the Gator Bowl football game yesterday, in which the University of North Carolina defeated the Air Force Academy, 35-0. Firemen said most victims had been asphyxiated by lung-searing smoke that billowed through rooms and halls, especially on the higher floors. Some victims were found huddled in bathrooms and under beds. A heart attack killed J.R. Romedy, 49-year-old assistant fire chief, as he worked with other firemen to save occupants trapped on the seventh floor. Among the hotel’s guests were Bill Murry, football coach of Duke University, and Frank Howard, football coach of Clemson College. Both were among those who escaped.


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