Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Unforgettable Images the Roosevelt Hotel Fire -- One of Hundreds of Events Chronicled in 'Jacksonville: Images through the 20th Century'

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Unforgettable Images the Roosevelt Hotel Fire -- One of Hundreds of Events Chronicled in 'Jacksonville: Images through the 20th Century'

Article excerpt

Neil Nevin glances down at the old photograph and finds himself reconnected to the past. The black-and-white image shows the former Jacksonville firefighter with two of his comrades, hauling a stunned, soot-covered woman out of the Roosevelt Hotel.

Different captions could capture the moment:

A bright spot during an otherwise tragic morning.

A small record of Nevin's life.

A piece of Jacksonville's history.

Twenty-two people, many of them Gator Bowl revelers, died Dec. 29, 1963 -- the highest death toll from a fire in Jacksonville history. Even the fire of 1901, which leveled half the city, claimed just seven lives.

The tragedy of the Roosevelt Hotel fire is an inseparable part of the First Coast's heritage -- one of hundreds of events, occurrences and developments that have shaped the lives and consciousness of those dwelling near the mouth of the St. Johns River.

The photo of Nevin assisting the semiconscious woman is drawn from the photo archives of the Times-Union and included in Jacksonville: images through the 20th century, a book and CD-ROM package being released tomorrow as part of the newspaper's effort to mark the year 2000 on the First Coast.

The 128-page book contains 200 photos. The accompanying CD contains those photographs and an additional 250 with meticulously researched captions.

"We hope that many people will see themselves and their relatives in there. . . . The community is right there in this book," said Laura Soto-Barra, the library director at the Times-Union who oversaw months of effort dedicated to assembling the pictorial history.

For Foster Marshall, the Times-Union photographer who took the picture of Nevin and his colleagues, the day of the Roosevelt Hotel fire remains unforgettable.

"It was so chaotic," the 64-year-old retiree said. "It was hard to fathom it was happening in our town. Those things always happen somewhere else."

He remembered the photo of the three firefighters and the woman well. It captured the day.

"That one had a little more drama in it, due to the expression on the firemen's faces," Marshall explained.

Looking at the photo, Nevin, now 65, still recalls that moment clearly.

When he arrived at the scene early in the morning, pandemonium reigned, Nevin recalled.

People grabbed hands and lowered people from floor to floor. Makeshift ropes of tied sheets hung from windows. Two men walked precariously along an external ledge, then shimmied their way down a drainpipe.

"People were desperate. They thought they were going to burn up," Nevin said.

But the flames in the second-floor ballroom proved the smaller threat. Rather, the noxious fumes, loaded with deadly carbon monoxide, wafted to the hotel's upper floors and filled hallways and guest rooms.

Nevin and other firefighters went floor by floor, kicking in doors and pulling out unconscious guests. …

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