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Firefighters at the Roosevelt Hotel fire. (Photo from JacksonvilleFireMuseum.com)
Jax Daily Record Monday, May 9, 201612:00 PM EST

50 years ago: Judge absolves city of liability in deadly Roosevelt Hotel fire

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by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The city and its fire department were cleared of liability in nearly 40 lawsuits seeking $10 million in damages connected to the 1963 fire at the Roosevelt Hotel in which 22 people died.

The ruling by Circuit Judge Marion Gooding left Hotel Roosevelt Inc. and its fire insurer, U.S. Fidelity and Guarantee Co., as the targets for damage claims in the fire.

The hotel’s position was the city and the insurance company should have been responsible for paying judgments since both inspected the hotel for fire hazards.

Any recommendations made by the city and fire department concerning safety issues had been followed by management, hotel officials said.

While denying negligence on its part, the hotel said if there were a court determination of negligence, the insurer and the city should be financially responsible for what it said was their failure to notify the hotel of any hazardous conditions.

Additionally, the hotel said during the pre-dawn fire, city employees turned off the main power switch supplying electricity to the hotel, plunging it into darkness and impeding efforts of firefighters to locate and evacuate guests.

After hearing more than four hours of arguments, Gooding ruled the city could not be held liable for the type of negligence alleged.

He withheld final ruling on the hotel’s plea to hold the insurance company liable for money damages resulting from a possible finding of negligence.

The Dec. 29 blaze cast a pall over the otherwise festive Gator Bowl activities.

After a fire started in the hotel’s ballroom, smoke seeped up through the building.

Smoke inhalation was determined to be the cause of 20 deaths, one guest was killed in a fall while attempting to escape the building and an assistant fire chief died of a heart attack while fighting the fire.

Gooding tentatively set Sept. 12 to begin trials for the lawsuits.

• Major expansion plans for J.C. Penney Co. in Jacksonville were announced by the company’s 90-year-old founder while he and his wife were here to attend the 50th wedding anniversary of friends.

J.C. Penney said the Cedar Hills store would be enlarged to more than three times its current size and the store at Gateway Shopping Center would expand by more than four times.

The Cedar Hills project would increase the store to about 77,000 square feet. The Gateway store would be moved to a new location in the center and would expand to 163,000 square feet.

Penney also announced he was introducing catalog centers in Jacksonville, which would allow customers to place orders and have merchandise delivered within 72 hours.

In terms of construction, a catalog center and appliance store was being built in South Jacksonville and a full-service department store was under construction as part of the Regency Square Shopping Center, scheduled to open in 1967.

• Duval Medical Center was the only hospital in Jacksonville — and one of only 19 in the state — to be accepted to date by the federal government for participation in Medicare, which would go into effect July 1.

One of the primary steps toward federal approval was for hospital administrators to sign a statement assuring compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Criteria included a hospital had to be open to all patients regardless of race, creed or national origin and hospital privileges had to be open to all qualified physicians.

All of Jacksonville’s hospitals and Beaches Hospital had submitted the documentation, said William Bishop, president of the Jacksonville Hospital Council.

He said he was confident all area hospitals would be approved for Medicare by July 1.

• A man was surprised by Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission agents as he skinned a 9-foot bull alligator carcass.

The man was trying to start his car when an agent drove up behind him. He fled on foot, leaving the reptile behind.

Lt. C.J. Barrie said he received a call from a witness who said he saw two men kill an alligator in Green Cove Springs and put the carcass in the trunk of their car and drive away.

Barrie said the caller gave him a description of the vehicle and the license plate number, which was traced. He found it belonged to a Jacksonville resident.

Barrie then called Duval County agent Howard Stalls, who began searching a wooded area near the suspect’s home just off San Clerc Road close to the nearly completed Interstate 95 link.

Stalls spotted the car parked in the woods. When he approached, he told the man he was under arrest, causing the suspect to flee.

Barrie said he would contact the State Attorney’s Office to file charges against the owner of the vehicle.

• Jake Godbold, retiring president of the Jacksonville Jaycees, was installed as 4th District Jaycee vice president at the organization’s annual state convention in St. Petersburg.

He succeeded Lew Brantley.

• The School Survey Program, established by the Duval County Taxpayers Association, was not a “witch hunt” and the organization wasn’t after anyone’s job, said its chairman.

Nathan Wilson, addressing the Meninak Club at its weekly meeting at the Mayflower Hotel, said the survey was an objective, unbiased, non-political effort with the main goal to ensure the $49 million school budget was being spent effectively and efficiently.

In addition to the study of school spending, the group would examine such items as maintenance and the need for a new high school in East Jacksonville.

“We will not have one final report,” said Wilson. “We’ll issue reports as we go along.”

• A proposed merger with the Jacksonville Area Chamber of Commerce was rejected by the Jacksonville Beaches chamber.

It was noted that joining with the Jacksonville group would make it necessary for the Beaches chamber to increase membership fees considerably and directors were concerned about possible loss of members.

As a means of compromise, Beaches chamber President Joseph Gill was asked to meet with Jacksonville chamber officials to discuss an advertising program that would place more emphasis on the recreational facilities available at the Beaches.

• Damage estimated as high as $300,000 was caused by a violent thunderstorm with a 1-mile-long path of destruction in Clay County near the Duval County line.

Wind damaged 21 homes, ripping the roofs from 14, primarily in the Meadowbrook area near Orange Park.

Trees were uprooted, power lines snapped and debris was strewn in all directions as the storm cut a swath 300 feet wide.

Miraculously, only two people were hurt and their injuries were minor.

Although the U.S. Weather Bureau at Imeson Airport was unable to classify the storm as a tornado, meteorologist R.R. Rhoten said the winds were “of tornadic proportions.”

He said the storm could have been a “plow wind,” a high wind that sweeps in a straight line without any circular movement.

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