The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Gay Pride Day: Triumph & Tragedy

Holocaust in New Orleans by George Schwandt

New Orleans—The tragic fire at a gay bar here on Sunday, June 24—being celebrated as Gay Pride in many of the nation’s cities—turned a festive evening info a hell in which 29 persons died. One other man died in a hospital four days later. Fourteen others were injured, several of them barely clinging to life nearly a week after the blaze.

The belief was widespread that the bar—the Up Stairs Lounge—had been firebombed, but authorities had still made no official determination of the cause of the blaze nearly a week later.

Fire Supt. William McCrossan said “it could be one of the worst fires in the city’s history in terms of people killed.” Certainly never before in the memory of observers had a gay bar the scene of such a tragedy, and both local officials and local and national news media struggled visibly to reconcile the natural human reaction of shock and dismay with the dislike of homosexuals so deeply engrained in American society.

Maj. Henry Morris, chief of detectives of the New Orleans Police Department, drew a stringing denunciation from the Rev. Troy Perry, head of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, for reportedly referring to the Up Stairs as “a queer bar. ”Mr. Perry, who flew here immediately after the fire, said the police department later disputed whether the statement had been made but apologized anyway.

There were reports, which fire investigators here would neither confirm nor deny, that both the FBI and the National Fire Prevention Bureau were aiding police, the state fire marshal’s office, and the New Orleans Fire Prevention Division in the investigation of the blaze. The tragedy revived a controversy over preservation of many of the ancient buildings in the French Quarter.  The Up Stairs was on the second floor of one of these, a three-story structure on Iberville Street a block from Canal Street.

Timothy A. Driscoll, an assistant state fire marshal, charged June 27 that by fighting demolition of unsafe structures, the Vieux Carre Commission is inviting a holocaust that could involve the entire Quarter.

 Another second floor bar on Iberville, a block from the Up Stairs, the Safari Lounge, was closed by the Fire Prevention Bureau in the wake of the Up Stairs for alleged fire code violations. The Safari is not gay.

The Up Stairs was in compliance with the fire code according to Driscoll, who examined the gutted building after the blaze. However, New Orleans Coroner Carl Rabin said a false plywood wall in the bar, which blocked access to windows “certainly contributed to the death toll.”

 The fire was a major blow to the local Metropolitan Community Church, which had held some of its early meetings at the Up Stairs. The bar was still a favorite haunt for MCC members, and about ten of them – nearly a third of the membership - were missing or dead in the fire.   Among the dead was the church’s interim pastor, The Rev. William R. Larson, 47.

 The occasion for the gathering the afternoon of June 24 was the bar’s regular Sunday afternoon beer bust from 5 to 7 PM. Over 125 persons were in the bar just before the beer bust officially ended, but by 7:30 the crowd had thinned to about 60. Many were gathered around a baby grand piano in one corner, singing.

William White of Pineville, La. was quoted by United Press International as saying he had left the bar moments before the fire because “there were a couple of guys quarreling at the top of the stairs” which led to the bar.

 Other survivors have confirmed that there was some altercation, but accounts vary as to whether anyone had been ejected from the premises or had been asked to leave.

Summons to Disaster –

 A few minute before eight, a buzzer used by taxi driver at the entrance to summon customers, sounded. Someone opened the heavy fire door connecting the top of a narrow flight of stairs to the lounge.

 A ball of flame, which some witnesses said seemed to be fed by gasoline or some other inflammable fluid, burst into the bar. Someone screamed “Fire.” Panic followed. 

 The acoustical tile in the false ceiling ignited, the flames shot through the open space, and within seconds the ceiling was a sheet of fire.

Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen, UpStairs Lounge manager, who had been tending bar, called out for the crowd to not panic.  He led about 20 people out an obscure back exit, which led to a roof door – and safety.

But most of the people in the bar either did not know about the rear door or had no chance to reach it. One of them was Rasmussen’s lover, Adam R. Fontenot, who died in the flames.

Tragic Figure

One man wrenched an air conditioner out of a window apparently covered otherwise with a sheet of plywood, but could not get through the opening, news photos of the fire showed his body resting on the window sill – a macabre, mannequin-like figure, its face showing the horror of death. Some MCC members said that was Mr. Larson, but others disputed the identification.

Another man was in a washroom when a friend rushed in and said someone had started a fire. They looked to see the ceiling ablaze. The first man dived for a window about five feet away and escaped by kicking out the glass panes as flames seared his back. The friend who had warned of the danger didn’t manage to follow him.

Others who tried to get through windows were trapped by burglar bars.

About 20 others escaped through the unbarred windows on the opposite side of the room. Many leaped to the street, some sustaining fractures in the drop. Spectators amid blood and glass, littering the pavement, helped extinguish their flaming clothing.

With city fire headquarters only three blocks away, firemen arrived within minutes, rescuing others who had gotten out of the windows and stood on ledges or on a fire escape which did not provide a ladder to the ground. The firemen had the flames under control within 16 minutes after the first alarm.

When they were able to enter, they found a scene of horror - bodies piled on the floor, most of them near the false plywood wall.

Fire officials initially released a fatality count of 38, but it developed that, in the confusion, some bodies had been counted twice.

The scene at Charity Hospital where the injured were taken was a gruesome one.  Nurses divided themselves in teams, some gathering blood, others checking vital signs of life and trying to get names from those who could talk. Some were burned over 100 per cent of their bodies.

Doctors were cutting away dead and charred skin, racing against time to save the lives of their moaning, unmoving patients.

As they worked, ambulances delivered more stretchers bearing cut and burned victims. Police officers arrived, and later friends and families of the suffering swelled the crowds in the halls.

Who started the fire?

 There was no doubt among any of those present that the bar had been torched. But was it a disgruntled patron or someone whose mind was twisted by hatred of homosexuals?

The gay community was initially alarmed when TV channel 8 reported having received a call from a woman saying, “The fire last night was set by a vigilante group which has declared a war on homos. The group is called ‘Black Momma, White Momma’,” after a movie of the same name. More attacks were planned,” the caller said.

The station gave a tape recording of the call to police. But detectives have proclaimed the call a hoax and appear to be directing their investigation principally on the theory that the arsonist  was a patron.

Fire tragedy confuses both straights, gays

by Bill Rushton, Managing Editor, Vieux Carre Courier

NEW ORLEANS  - Reactions here to the Up Stairs lounge tragedy was mixed and widely variable –depending more on the sensitivities of the observer than on raw details of the tragedy.

The city’s daily news media was perhaps the clumsiest observer of all. The gay world here is rarely mentioned in their news accounts, and never referred to as any kind of ”community.”

The last known time the gay world surfaced in the straight press, before the tragedy of June 24, had been on a locally produced noontime television news and variety program 1 ½ years ago. Films of the drag ball of a gay Mardi Gras social club caused a few ripples but raised eye brows only among angry members of the club.

That left the media inexperienced and unable to explain the tragedy to its readers and viewers – despite a dozen gay reporters in the local press corps whose first-hand knowledge could have improved their coverage.

For example, the Monday morning New Orleans Times-Picayune avoided the use of the word “homosexual.”  Tuesday, it used the word “gay” on page 3.

The afternoon New Orleans State-Times joined the NBC news and the local NBC station in calling the Up Stairs a “homosexual hangout” and then went on to quote a police official’ charge that “thieves” were known to work there, too.

The morning New Orleans Daily Record kept the story calm, positioning it at the top of the front page for three days running. It assigned its women’s editor to the only early story in print, focusing sympathetically on the Metropolitan community church, its fears of exposure, and its representation, and harassment in the midst of already burdensome tragedy.

Editorials discussed the need for stronger fire laws but touched on none of the human relations angles of the story that the newspapers themselves had permitted to worsen, Except for two state senators urging better fire laws, public officials were equally mum.

Meanwhile, local television stations engaged in their usual competitive scoopsmanship, with little in the way of background or penetrating analysis. The NBC affiliate was the first on the air with the word “homosexual,” but the ABC affiliate scooped them all with the Monday night report of an anonymous threat from terrorist group of self-described “victims” of homosexual attacks who had maps, and plans for future bombings, they said.

The story was so ludicrous that even the New Orleans Police Department quickly repudiated it as nothing more than a crank call. Once again, it was a woman reporter at the CBS affiliate who finally undertook the task of explaining the ordinary humanity of the victims, some of whom had children and all of whom were preparing to stage a crippled children’s benefit show at the bar June 30.

Though more people died at the Up Stairs than in prior (and more thoroughly reported) Rault Center and Howard Johnson’s fire disasters, media interest in this story began to lag after inly the first two days.

Largely because of this distant – and occasionally irresponsible – reporting, crowds of tourists and onlookers filed past the fatal corner for three days. But there were few clues to be and on the street, and the hustler bars along Iberville in the same neighborhood as the Up Stairs, were quiet, deserted, and sullen as the tourists gawked.

Since New Orleans’ French Quarter houses all of the city’s two dozen gay bars and a substantial number of its gay residents, the quarter’s “queer” reputation was as much discussed as the tragedy itself.

Comments like “I hope they burned their dresses off,” or “It was only faggots – why worry?” caused numerous fights and confrontations in the quarter. The bars were ultimately filled with gossip, paranoia, and sadness.

It was the worst paranoia to strike here since a patron, thrown out f the city’s best-know bar, rammed his pickup truck through the front wall in retaliation, or since the murder of two Gays by a third, drug-crazed Gay during the Super Bowl two years ago.

Irony abounded. One of those murders ahs occurred in a straight bar on the ground floor of the building where the Up Stairs is located. And the Up Stairs opened three years ago with equipment salvaged from a bar in a flop-house hotel across the street that had burned two months earlier.

The City’s only organized gay liberation, The Tulane Gay Students Union, had disbanded for the Summer, leaving local MCC leaders and a few nationally known outsiders to call the press conferences and plan the services and try to calm down the gay community in the wake of the tragedy and its accompanying subdues hostility in the straight community .

Pray for those who did this’

New Orleans -  “The individuals who did this: they’re the ones we have to pray for. They have to live with themselves.  This will be on their conscience for the rest of their lives.”

So spoke the Rev. Troy Perry, founder and moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, at a Monday evening memorial service here June 25, for victims of the previous day’s disaster at the Up Stairs Lounge.

The services were conducted by the Rev, William Richardson Jr., rector of St. George’s Episcopal church, which had permitted the MCC congregation to hold its initial meeting in the its chapel.

About 10 MCC members apparently died in the fire. Among the dead was the interim pastor, the Rev. William Larson, 47.

Father Richardson spoke about Mr. Larson, his church work, and his efforts to help people.

Mr. Perry observed that “ my brothers and sisters were destroyed in the fire, they are at peace now.”

“Someone said, ‘It was just a bunch of faggots, ‘ but we know them as people and brothers and sisters and will never forget them, “ he added.

Also assisting with the service were the Rev. David Solomon, founder of New Orleans MCC, the Rev. John Gill, district coordinator and pastor of Atlanta MCC, and Lucien Baril, newly-appointed MCC worship coordinator here.

Nearly 200 attended the emotional ceremony. Many had suffered the loss of close personal friends; many were in tears.

Mr. Gill described New Orleans as a city of sorrow, expressing hope that the great loss will bring the city together.

“New Orleans should not be the city that care forgot, but the city that God remembered,” he said.

Mr. Solomon spoke briefly on the loss of a close personal friend.

Courtney Craighead, an MCC deacon who escaped the fire uninjured, gave a short sermon.

In closing, Mr. Perry called for a nationwide day of mourning the following Sunday, and suggested that gay bars and nightclubs mark the occasion for a one-hour period starting at 8 PM that July 1.

“This is a most tragic ending of Gay Pride Week, where so many good,  positive events resulted in a great number of new avenues of progress, for the nation’s homosexual community,” he said.

Following the Monday service, members of the MCC party toured a number of bars, “because people were really scared.” Mr. Perry reported. “We visited Pete’s, The Cavern, and Lafitte’s in Exile and made our presence known in all of them. The response we got has been just fantastic.”

22 fire dead identified positively; 3 tentatively

NEW ORLEANSNearly a week after the Up Stairs Lounge fire, the coroner’s office had been able to establish positive identification of only 21 of the 29 who died in the blaze, plus one man who died later in Charity Hospital. Fourteen others were injured.

Through the local metropolitan Community Church, the ADVOCATE obtained tentative identification of three more.

James Curtis Warren, 26, and his brother Eddie Hosea Warren, 25, both of Pensacola, Fla., had taken their mother, Inez Warren, 50, of Monroeville, Ala., to visit the bar, All three were positively identified as having died in the flames.

George C. “Mitch” Mitchell, an exhorter in he local Metropolitan Community C, escaped from the inferno, then went back in –despite firemen who attempted to restrain him – to attempt to rescue his lover, Louis Horace Broussard, 26, of Kaplan, La. Broussard has been positively identified as one of the dead. Mitchell’s name did not appear on the coroner’s list, but MCC sources said there was no doubt he also died.

A divorcee, Mitchell had left his two children watching movie at a local  theatre.

The body of William R. Larson, 47, MCC interim pastor, was identified by the coroner’s office June 28.

A number of persons were led to safety by Douglas Rasmussen, manager of the Up Stairs, who also escaped. But his lover, Adam R. Fontenot, was on the coroner’s list.

Other dead who have been positively identified by the coroner’s office included:

Donald Walter Dunbar, 21, Tampa, Fla.; Leon Richard Maples, 31, Jacksonville, Fla.; John F. Golding, 49, New Orleans; Joe William Bailey, 29, Talapoosa, La.; George Steven Matyi, 27, Slidwell, La.; Clarence Joseph McCloskey, 48, New Orleans; Douglas Williams, age and address unavailable; Robert Lumpkin, 30, no address; Kenneth P.  Harrington, 48, New Orleans; Dr. Perry Waters, Hanrahan, La.; David Gary, no age or address; Glenn R. Green, 32, Algiers, La.; Horace Gretchell, no age or address; Joe Adams, no age or address; and Gerald Gordon, 37, born in Coronersville, Tenn.  Jim Hambrick, 45, of New Orleans, died in Charity Hospital June 28 of burns over 50 percent of his body surface.

Others tentatively identified by MCC sources are ˝Guy Anderson and Norman LaVergne.  A “Kenneth Horton” on the MCC list was believed to be the same person as Kenneth P. Harrington on the coroner’s list.

In addition to Mr. Larson, Broussard, Lumpkin, Green and Golding were identified as MCC members. Golding was a member of the church’s Board of Elders. Several MCC members were believed to be among those not yet identified. 

A coroner’s office spokesman said the only means of identifying many of the bodies was dental records.

The personal effects, wallets, and identification cards of many of the victims were burned or melted beyond use, according to a doctor who viewed the bodies at Charity Hospital after the fire. Some may never be definitely identified.

The Rev. Troy Perry denounced as “racist” a statement by Maj. Henry Morris, chief of detectives of the New Orleans Police department.

“We don’t even know if these papers belong to the people we found them on,” Morris said, referring to identification on some of the bodies, “Some thieves hung out there, you know. This was a queer bar.”

Mr. Perry said the police department later disputed the statement, but apologized anyway.

The injured included Adolph Median, 32; Francis Dufrene, 21; Linn Quinton 25; and Philip Byrd all treated at Charity Hospital the night of the fire and released. A fifth person, identified only as “a boy called ‘Rusty,’ ” was partially treated and walked out of the hospital – possibly in a state of shock – without being released.

Still hospitalized as of June 29, with the hospital in which they were being treated and their condition at that time, were: Luther Boggs, 47, and Larry Stratton, 24, both at Charity Hospital in serious to critical condition; Michael Scarborough, 27, and Roger Dunn, 26 at West Jefferson General Hospital. Scarborough was in fair condition, Dunn in “guarded condition; Sidney Espanache, 50, at Southern Baptist Hospital in serious condition;  Eddie Gillis, 52, at Veterans Administration Hospital in poor condition; Eugene Thomas, 42, and Fred Ohway, both at Toure Infirmary in fair condition; Jean Gosnell, 36, in fair condition at U. S. Public Health Service Hospital.

The ADVOCATE decided to print the full list of names only after finding that the names were readily available to authorities and the press, and most had been published  elsewhere.

The July 18th edition of The Advocate looks at the Upstairs tragedy, called “Holocaust,” in great depth, drawing on perspectives from the New Orleans gay community.
Source: The Advocate, July 18, 1973
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