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Winter storm played a role in country club fire

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February 1948 found Piedmont and Eastern North Carolina in the grips of “the worst snow and sleet storm of 15 years.”

One News & Observer headline announced “All Traffic in N. C. Halted.”

Raleigh found itself under a nine-inch layer of ice and snow. Several cities in the state reported a shortage of fuel oil as they faced continued freezing temperatures.

State Fuel Oil coordinator W. Z. Betts, who said he had been receiving emergency requests in heavy volume ... appealed for careful use of remaining gallons. The State has no rationing system, he pointed out, and communities must use their own initiative in working out arrangements between oil users and oil dealers to prevent a crisis. Two cities, Greensboro and Durham, both shivering in temperatures in the low twenties, reported their fuel crisis were at hand.

Already the heating requirements for this winter have been 51 per cent greater ... than for the same period last winter.

In Raleigh, where an organized emergency oil allocating system has been operating for approximately a month, workers at City Hall yesterday doled out the last of a special fuel oil supply which had been stored at the city lot. -- The News & Observer 2/1/1948

In the midst of the storm, the club house at Raleigh’s Carolina Country Club burned to the ground, taking the lives of the club’s manager James E. Baker, his wife, Mrs. Baker’s mother, and the couple’s teenage children.

The Raleigh Times gave this account:

The firemen were called to the scene about 3:35 a. m. by Paul Garrison, son of Mrs. Ruby H. Garrison of 2503 Glenwood Avenue. Mrs. Garrison had been awakened by the sound of what she thought was a machine clearing the highway and later noticed the light reflecting on her walls from the blazing building.

It was also reported that a cruising taxi driver also noticed the burning building and with the aid of a two-way radio called the fact into the taxi headquarters, which relayed the information to the fire department.

Chief Lloyd said the three fire trucks were delayed from reaching the grounds of the fashionable club by a blinding snowstorm and icy streets but arrived at the scene in about 10 minutes. He said that the roof of the clubhouse was falling in when the firemen arrived and that “there was nothing we could do to save lives and very little that we could do to save property.”

The tragedy came only a few hours after a Saturday night dance at the clubhouse. Headwaiter Frank Constant, who has worked at the club for about 20 years, said he left the premises about 1 a. m. with three other waiters and a male hat checker.

He said that before going he and Mr. Baker had made a thorough check of the premises for fire hazards, inspecting two fireplaces which had been used during the evening, the furnace and all trash for possible smouldering cigarette butts.

When he left, Constant said, the Baker children and (their grandmother) had retired for the night and Mr. and Mrs. Baker were preparing to retire. He also stated that he noticed a stalled car in the driveway of the Country Club property as he was leaving.

Mary Frances Dillon ... reported to officers that when she, her escort and another couple became stuck in the sleet and snow about 2 a. m., she retired to the clubhouse to telephone for aid, rousing Baker at the time. She said she informed the club manager of smelling smoke, but he asserted that it was a green log smouldering in a fireplace.

Firemen and officers said they could not tell what caused the fire. Some laid the blame on a smouldering cigarette or perhaps sparks being blown on the floor from a fireplace. ...

Club officials would not estimate the property loss, but President Alfred Williams, Jr., said it was partly covered by insurance. He added that another clubhouse would be erected as soon as possible. It was the second to be destroyed by fire, the first in 1920 by reported defective wiring. -- The Raleigh Times 2/2/1948


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Raleigh's deadliest fire

Legeros Fire Blog has an account of the Carolina Country Club fire, along with another photo. It says this incident remains the deadliest fire in Raleigh history.

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