THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE FIRE New Orleans, Louisiana A. ELWOOD WILLEY Manager, NFPA Fire Record Department
ON JUNE 24, 1973, a fire in a second-floor cocktail lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans killed 32 patrons and injured 12 others. The fire was deliberately .set on the stairway of the main entrance; blocking the normal exit route from the lounge. Combustible wood paneling and carpet in the stairway provided fuel for the fire. In the confusion that followed, 20 people escaped through a rear door, 15 others escaped through windows, and 28 bodies were recovered from the lounge after the fire. Of those who escaped, one died before reaching the hospital, three died later of burn injuries, and seven others were critically burned.
The Upstairs Lounge was located at the intersection of Iberville and Chartres Streets in the French Quarter. On the second floor of a three-story, brick, wood-joisted building, it had been operated as a cocktail lounge since the early 1960's. Two other bars were on the first floor of the building, and there were apartments on the third floor. The second floor was divided into three areas: the bar, a lounge, and a small theater used for plays (see Figure 1). The lounge and theater areas measured approximately 20 feet by 46 feet; the bar was 20 feet by 58 feet. The building was separated from a three-story building on the west and from a one story building on the north by 12-inch-thick brick walls.
The second-story landing of the only stairway was in a 12 foot-by-20-foot area that was separated from the bar by a plaster-and-Iathe-on-wood stud partition. Rest rooms were also in this partitioned-off area. A fire door and frame assembly, approved for a Class B opening, and equipped with a door closer, was installed in this partition at the stair landing. There was a large, unprotected opening in the brick wall between the bar and the lounge. A brick wall separated the theater from the lounge; a swinging fire door, approved for the protection of a Class A firewall opening, was installed in the doorway.
Interior finishes in the bar and lounge included a rayon fiber-flocked wallpaper on plaster-and-wood lath walls, glass fiber ceiling tiles suspended below a plaster-and-wire-Iathe ceiling, and carpet cemented to a wood floor. Wood paneling on wood studs separated a storage room from the lounge. Interior finishes in the theater included wood-paneled walls, a wood floor, and a wood tongue-and-groove ceiling.
In the entrance stairway, carpeting was on the wood stairs, three-sixteenth-inch wood paneling was attached to 1-inch-by-4-inch wood nailers on the plaster north wall, and a burlap fabric was glued over the plaster south wall. Undetermined amounts of fabric and paper decorations were used in the stairway entrance and in the bar.
There were two ways out of the second story: the main entrance stairway, which opened to the outside to Iberville Street; and a rear door behind the stage in the theater, which discharged to the roof of the one story building to the north. Illuminated exit signs were installed in the second story over the main entrance, above the doorway leading to the theater from the lounge, and above the rear door behind the stage. The word "EXIT' had been removed from the frame of the exit sign over the rear door. The path to this door was not obvious, and was obstructed by the stage and scenery. To open it, one had to remove a wire from a hasp. The operating condition of the other exit signs could not be determined. An exterior metal fire escape was located on the east side of the building and ran from the second to the third floor. Access to the second floor fire escape balcony was through a window at the north end of the bar.
Exterior windows in the bar and lounge areas were 42 inches wide and over nine feet high. Since the window sills were only a few inches above the floor, three horizontal metal rods had been installed across each window to prevent people from falling through the openings. The rods were installed ten inches apart, with maximum clearance of 14 inches between the sill and the first rod. A pair of wooden shutters was also installed in the lower section of each window, and the windows in the lounge were sealed over with plywood. Total seating capacity in the bar, lounge, and theater was 110 people; at the time of the fire, approximately 65 persons were present. No one was in the third story apartments.
On Sunday evening, June 24, one of the Upstairs Lounge patrons was annoyed by the constant ringing of the door bell. He went to the entrance door at the head of the stairs and opened it. Fire immediately came into the lounge from the stairway and exposed those sitting at the bar. A group of patrons standing around the piano near the south end of the bar turned when they heard a noise, and saw flames coming into the bar from the entrance doorway. People ran around in confusion. Those who were near the windows unfastened the wooden shutters, opened the windows and squeezed out between the metal bars. Some of those who reached the windows first were able to crawl out and slide down drain pipes to the sidewalk below. As more people became aware of the fire, many of them rushed to the windows, but only a few were able to escape.
Meanwhile, the bartender left the bar when he first saw the fire, and shouted for everyone to stay calm and follow him to the rear door. He led several people through the fire door at the entrance to the theater and. directed them through the rear door behind the stage scenery. It is estimated that about 20 people were able to escape through this theater exit. The bartender then went back through the theater to the fire door, opened it and called out again for people to follow him. There was no response, since by that time the fire was spreading through the bar area. He went back into the theater, closed the fire door, latched it and left the theater area through the rear door.
Shortly before 8:00 pm, a woman who was walking past the entrance and stairway to The Upstairs Lounge saw a fire burning on the second and third steps. She went into an adjacent bar and shouted for someone to call the Fire Department. A barmaid telephoned the alarm. Four men left the bar and went to the Lounge entrance to see what was causing all the excitement. The woman then went back to the Lounge entrance. By that time, the fire had progressed to the top of the stairs. The alarm was received by the Fire Department, and two engine companies and a ladder company were dispatched at 7:56 pm. Four additional alarms brought a total of 13 engine companies and 4 ladder companies to the scene. At 7:58 pm, first-arriving fire fighters found the entrance stairway and the bar fully involved. Several occupants who had jumped from windows were lying injured in the street, and one woman was waiting for rescue on the exterior fire escape which led from the second to the third floor of-the building. Other Lounge patrons were trapped in the second-story bar; since the fire had spread through that area, they were at the time beyond the reach of help.
Fire fighters gave immediate assistance to the injured lying in the street and rescued the woman from the fire escape. They used three 2 1/2--inch hand lines and a 500 gpm ladder pipe for a short time to knock down the fire in the second story, while a special fire-fighting unit known as the Flying Squad advanced up the stairs and into the bar with a 1 ½-inch line. The fire was brought under control within 15 minutes of the initial alarm. After the fire was knocked down, fire fighters found 28 bodies in the bar section (see Figure 1). One pile of bodies was located at the southeast corner of the bar. In all, 23 bodies were located at that end of the bar, next to exterior windows. One of those who had escaped through a window was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital. Fifteen others who had jumped or fallen from windows were also transported to hospitals. Five were treated and released and three died, having suffered massive burns over 50 percent of their bodies.
Principal fire damage was limited to the entrance stairway, the bar, and the lounge. The theater received moderate smoke damage. In the stairway, the carpet had been consumed except for carpet on the tread near the top of the stairs. The stair treads and risers were heavily charred. The wood paneling on the north wall had been consumed, and plaster was spalled on the walls and ceiling near the top of the stairs. In the bar area, carpeting was charred, the flocked wallpaper was consumed, and the ceiling tile system had dropped to the floor. The wood cocktail bar, window frames and other combustible furnishings were heavily charred. Fire damage in the lounge was nearly as severe. The char line on the flocked wallpaper on the west (theater) wall stopped two feet from the floor. Some carpet was intact, where it had been protected by furniture, and a portion of the ceiling tile system remained in place at the south end of the room. The wood paneling on the storage room partition was charred down to approximately one foot from the floor. The plywood that covered the windows was charred from the top down to approximately the midpoint. The theater suffered only moderate smoke damage, since the fire door stayed closed during the most severe fire exposure.
The speed of the initial fire development is of interest. The woman who had seen the fire burning in the stairway discovered it at approximately 7:53 pm. The alarm was received at 7:55 and the fire apparatus dispatched at 7:56. When the first units arrived at 7:58 the bar was fully involved, and those who survived had already escaped the inferno. The exposure to the bar and lounge patrons was immediate when the entrance door was opened. It is believed that the door remained open or at least partially open after the patron opened it and discovered the fire. Nearly all of the heat, fire, and combustion gases from the stairway vented into the second story, since the only other opening from the stairway was a small window near the top measuring approximately 18 inches by 36 inches.
The time that the occupants had to react to the fire threat was very brief, and, the bartender's immediate and positive action in directing patrons through the rear door is credited with saving approximately 20 lives. Five people who initially escaped through windows and slid to the ground over drain pipes and sign appurtenances received relatively minor cuts and bruises. Nine others who squeezed between the window bars and either jumped or fell to the ground received massive burns and other injuries; One of them died before reaching the hospital, and three others died several days later. The woman who climbed out onto the fire escape also received severe burns.
Survivors described the frustration of trying to persuade more people to move toward the rear door, instead of sitting or standing where they were. Whether this lack of action was because initial shock created an inability to react to the threat is not known. Panic resulted when those who had stayed behind ran for the windows. Their bodies were found stacked in front of the only visible means of escape.
Investigations conducted by the Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office and the New Orleans Fire Department indicate that the fire was intentionally set on the first few steps of the entrance stairway. However, details as to how the fire was set were not available. When discovered, the fire was burning on the carpet on the first two wood steps. Flames spread up the stairs on the carpet and then involved the wood paneling.
The National Bureau of Standards conducted flame spread tests of carpet material that had been removed from the second-story floor. The 5/32-inch-thick carpet was constructed of polyvinyl chloride and cellulose fibers, felted together in four layers with the top layer consisting of 100 percent polyvinyl chloride fibers. Two carpet samples were tested using the method described in E-162-72, Test for Surface Flammability of Material, Using a Radiant Heat Energy Source. Test results indicated an average flame spread index of 535, which placed these carpet samples within the Class E flame spread classification. The Upstairs Lounge management indicated that the carpet material on the stairs was the same as that in the Lounge. However, positive identification of the stair material could not be made due to fire damage. The stairway carpet contributed to the initial spread of fire up the stairs, and the carpet in the second floor bar and lounge contributed additional fuel in those areas.
Source: Night Club Fire (The Upstairs Lounge) New Orleans, LA June 24, 1973; from the National Fire Protection Association; published in Fire Journal January 1974, pp., 16-20 with drawings and fire test data.