HOUSTON, Tex. (UP) -- Fire, sweeping through a cheap hotel early today, killed 54 men, most of them elderly charity cases who paid from 20 to 40 cents a night for a place to rest.
Most of the victims were charred by flames when they were trapped on the upper floors of the three-story structure. Others were killed when they leaped to the street to escape flames lapping at their clothing.
At least 20 others were being treated for severe burns and broken limbs. Bits of glass littered the street and many were cut severely when they jumped, landing at the feet of horrified spectators who surrounded the building.
One aged victim, trying to leap from a window, was trapped when the window frame fell on his back. Flames caught at his clothing as his legs were held tightly within the room by the window. He burned to death.
The fire apparently was started by a cigarette that set a mattress on fire. Walter L. Chappell, night clerk, said 133 men were registered at the hotel when the fire broke out shortly after midnight. A.C. Martindale, captain of the homicide squad, said that all of the 87 beds and 40-odd cots were filled, and many men were sleeping double.
Identification was progressing with difficulty because many of the victims were transients. Most of the dead were charred beyond recognition. Survivors, sobbing, homeless old men, appeared at the morgue looking for missing friends and often making identification for authorities.
Chappell said he was notified by a guest that there was smoke in the hotel. He found a mattress on fire and extinguished it quickly, but later he heard another person calling from the third floor. He saw flames, called the fire department, and began arousing guests.
"I helped several old men get downstairs and the last time I went up a sheet of flame met me," he said. "I couldn't get through."
The structure burned for three hours before rescue squads could enter and carry out bodies of dead and injured. Police said many of the deaths were caused because the panic-stricken victims pushed and knocked each other down in trying to escape.
D.J. Brown, 70 years old, said he was awakened by smoke, and sat up in bed choking.
"The smoke was so thick I had to feel my way to the door," he said.
"I heard men running in the hall. Some of them were crying for help in their rooms. I shouted to a couple of my friends in the next room and then got to the stairway. I don't know whether they got out or not. I've been walking around for hours trying to find them. I guess they're still up there burned to death."
Another man sat on the curb crying because he had left his watch in his room. He had owned it for 30 years while he worked as a railroad man.
Editor's note: The Gulf Hotel fire ultimately claimed 55 lives.