The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Next Day in Baton Rouge Paper

Fire Toll Worst Ever for Orleans. Brief Fire Fatal to 29 in Quarter by Ed Tunstall.

As French Quarter bars go, it wasn’t much, a hangout on a street lined with little bars. But as a blazing deathtrap it will rank as the worst in New Orleans history.

The first which claimed 29 lives at the Up Stairs Lounge lasted less than 20 minutes.  But Fire Supt. William J. McCrossen said it was the worst he had seen in 31 years in “terms of human life.”

The second-story bar was in a building just a block from the Mardi Gras-famed Canal Street and sandwiched between the 42-story swanky Marriott Hotel and the French Quarter Holiday Inn, another new highrise.

87 Firemen Respond. Eighty-seven firefighters and 21 pieces of firefighting apparatus turned out to combat the blaze.  A fire in the centuries-old French Quarter brings the fire department on the run as quickly as possible.

Officials allowed newsmen up to the second floor after making sure that the building was secure.

 They saw bodies piled against windows on which bars had been placed as protection against burglars.

The head and shoulder of one man poked through the window, as far as the burglar-preventing bars would allow.  The rest of his body was charred.

At the next window, a man died in a kneeling position with one foot poked through the window. Three or four bodies were piled atop his.

“The place was a complete inferno when my men got there just two minutes after the alarm was sounded,” said  McCrossen.

McCrossen said he thought the 29 victims did not burn to death. “’The tiger,’” as he called the fire, never got to them while they were still alive. He said he thought all died from breathing “superheated gas and I’m talking about 180 degrees. That will knock you unconscious with just a couple of whiffs.”

Bodies Removed. After police and firemen secured the burned-out room, the long task of removing the bodies began.  It took more than three hours as hundreds of curious spectators lined the streets.

A fire engine with a 65-foot lift arm kept raising and lowering its basket. Bodies in black rubber and plastic sacks were loaded into it to be lowered to the street. 

On the sidewalk below stood firemen with rolling cars to take the bodies to nearby ambulances. Roman Catholic priests quietly administered the last sacrament of the church.

A young man, no more than 18 or 19, stood on the corner with tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Sure I knew them, they were all my friends,” he said.

Barred Windows Prevented Victims From Fleeing Fire. Burglar-proof bars over second floor windows prevented many of the 29 victims of the Sunday night’s French Quarter fire from jumping to safety.

“I was small enough so I could get out,” said Adolph  Medina, who had been standing at the fire at the Upstairs Lounge when the fire broke out.

“I didn’t hear anyone shouting, but I felt the excitement and turned around to see the flames,” said Medina, 32, of San Antonio, Tex., as he stood in Charity Hospital awaiting treatment. 

Couldn’t Help.  “And all I could do was stand there.”

“My friend started toward the door, but it was blocked, so he turned back and gave me a push toward  window,” said Medina, a slightly-built wig saloon manager.

“I was panicked about jumping, but two guys urged me to jump and I was small enough so I could get out,” he said. “Some big guy on the ground caught me and I kept looking back, but my friend never got out.”

“I loved him.”

Many others died against the windows, including two bodies which slumped for hours at the window’s edge, one with the sleeve of a green sports coat unburned on a wrist, and the other, naked except for an undamaged brown workman’s shoe.

“Four persons died in front of my eyes tonight,” said Linn Quinton, also awaiting treatment at Charity.

“I was pleading and pleading with them, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t jump. The bigger people just couldn’t get out.  Bill Larson, a pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church, got caught in the window and I just watched him burn.

“He had one arm out, and I heard him scream, ‘Oh, God, no.’ And in the next window, three people burned and I could just watch.”

Quinton, 25, of Houston, had been at the back of the bar when someone screamed ‘fire’ and he jumped for a nearby window, swung out of it, slid down a pipe and hit the street.  

Back Fire Escape. Others found a back fire escape.

“I went through a back door with several others, ran through a theater where we used to produce plays and went down a fire escape to the street,” said a young man, who would not identify himself.

But Quinton said he knew of no back fire escape—nor did most of the others.

Officials at Charity Hospital said 15 persons were being treated for second and third degree burns early Monday morning.

But the handful of lucky ones, who had escaped the tragedy with only lacerations and minor burns, sat in a hospital hallway discussing the friends they knew were trapped in the building.

“I’ll tell you something,” said Quinton, “I’ll never go into a second floor bar again.”

 13 of Dead Tentatively Identified. Working with scraps of charred drivers’ licenses and pieces of melted jewelry, police have tentatively identified 13 of the victims of Sunday night’s fire which killed 29.

Chief of Detectives Henry M. Morris said the identities probably will not be confirmed until dental charts are obtained for the coroner’s office.

“We don’t even have addresses on these people,” said Morris.

Normal police policy is to withhold identities until they are confirmed, a police spokesman said. But since dental records will have to be mailed from all over the country, the spokesman said, police are departing from policy this time.

Tentatively identified as victims of the fire were Leon Maples, Louis Broussard, John Goldring, Donald Dunbar, George Mitchell, Clarence McCloskey, Joe Bailey, Guy Anderson, David S. Gary, Norman Lavergne, Kenneth Harrington and Jerry Gordon.

The body of one woman lay among the 29 victims in the morgue. She was identified as Inez Warren.

“We don’t even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on,” Morris said.

“We’ve had calls from all over the country saying that friends or relatives of theirs hung out in that bar,” said a spokesman in the police information office. “All we can tell them is to get hold of a dental chart and mail it to us.”

Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition in the intense heat of the 20-minute blaze, the spokesman said.

The next-afternoon coverage in The State-Times, published in Baton Rouge, includes undercurrents of aversion to homosexuality.

Source: The State-Times (Advocate), Baton Rouge, La., June 25, 1973

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