N.O. Lounge Fire Kills 29 Persons
The 29 charred bodies of victims killed in a cocktail lounge fire were stacked in the city morgue today, and officials said identification was difficult because most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
The brief, intense fire, which swept through a Sunday night beer bust at the Up Stairs Lounge in the French Quarter, trapped most of the victims behind burglar bars.
A police official, calling the lounge a homosexual bar, said identification was made even more difficult because some of the men could have been carrying false identification.
Fifteen men, some of whom got to the fire escape and leaped to the sidewalk one story below, were injured, and six remained in serious condition today. Hospital officials said they feared some would die.
Because of the almost unbelievable speed of the blaze, officials said they were checking out the possibility of arson. “There are hints of a fire bombing,” said Chief of Detectives Henry M. Morris, “but no evidence has turned up to support it. Every story we get conflicts with every other story.”
He said no arrests were anticipated immediately.
One survivor said he believed somebody dashed an inflammable liquid on the stairway to the lounge and lit it.
When the fire broke out, the bar, known locally as a hangout for homosexuals was packed. Sunday was its biggest day, featuring a 5 to 7 cocktail hour with all you could eat and drink for $2, followed by partying until the wee hours.
Coroner’s assistants said they would have to check dental records to get identification for some of the charred bodies.
Some small persons managed to escape by squeezing through the burglar bars on the lounge’s front windows and then leaping to the street. Others left the building by smashing a side window and climbed onto a fire escape. A few made their way to another fire escape in the rear.
The bodies of those who did not make it lay jammed like logs against the front windows, with four huddled under a charred grand piano.
Some of the injured apparently were hurt in jumping to the street.
Authorities said there was only one woman among the dead.
Fire headquarters is but three blocks away. Units were on the scene in two minutes, said Supt. William McCressen. The fire was out 16 minutes later.
Adolph Medina, 32, of San Antonio, Tex., said flames engulfed the bar in a short, panicridden moment after the fire broke out on the front stairway.
He said, “I was panicked about jumping but two guys urged me to jump and I was small enough…some big guy on the ground caught me, and…kept looking back but my friend never got out.”
Linn Quinton, 25, of Houston, Tex., said, “The place just went up. Everyone panicked and started running for the windows. I jumped to the window in the left corner, opened it, swung out, grabbed a pipe and slid down.”
“I turned around and broke a couple of other people’s falls, but there were one or two who just wouldn’t jump.”
Quinton said, “The bigger people just couldn’t get out.”
“Bill Larsen, 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, ‘O God! No!’”
“In the next window beside him, three people burned to death while I could only watch.”
The bar was at the corner of Chartres and Iberville, one block off Canal Street, and across the street from the back entrance to the Marriott Hotel.
Marriott security guard Kenneth Meynard said, “It went up real quick. Second floor, flames were already at
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the windows when people started jumping.”
Police said the floor above the fire-gutted bar included three single-room apartments that were empty at the time.
A bar downstairs and one next door were damaged but there apparently were no injuries in them, police said.
Hundreds of persons swarmed from the busy Quarter area to watch firemen remove the bodies, lowering them one at a time with snorkel truck.
A bartender set up a bar on the sidewalk across the street and did a brisk business with the spectators.
French Quarter Fire Is Probed
Quick Searing Blast
The suspicious speed of a fire that killed 29 people at a Sunday night “beer bust” in a French Quarter bar was under close investigation today.
For the 29 that death found trapped in Up Stairs Lounge, located on the second floor of a three-story building, the end was alike a quick, searing blast from a blow torch.
Firemen said the fire lasted about 16 minutes. It consumed the interior of the bar but apparently did little serious structural damage to the old stone and brick building.
Courtney Craighead, a survivor, said he believes somebody dashed an inflammable liquid on the stairway and lit it.
“The fire came up the stairs fast,” he said. “There was an immense smoke in the room immediately.”
Fire Supt. William McCrossen said homicide investigators and the state fire marshal would take a careful look at reports that “some people smelled gasoline just before the fire.”
However, he cautioned, such reports were unconfirmed.
Craighead, a deacon of the Metropolitan Community church, said he got out by a rear exit, following a bartender who led about 20 men to safety.
Most others in the bar were trapped. Those who lived had to leap for their lives.
“There’s nothing like seeing human fireballs break through a window and jump –and never a word from them, not a scream, not a groan, nothing,” said a shaken young man who lives in a second-floor apartment directly across the narrow street.
The young man, who declined to identify himself, said he was looking out his window because of the insistent honking of a white auto which had paused in the street by the Up Stairs stairway entrance.
He said two men dashed down the stairs and into the car.
Moments later, he said, fire erupted in the lounge and he watched horrified as several men, hair and clothing already aflame, smashed window with their shoes and scrambled out onto the fire escape landing.
From there they had to jump; the old fire escape on that side of the building had no ladder to the street.
“It was the quickest fire I ever heard of,” said Louis Uhlich, a retired soldier who was in a bar next door to the stairway of the Up Stairs when it started.
“I was on my first beer when this woman ran in and yelled, ‘Come see! Come see!’” Uhlich added. “I ran out and two or three of the steps were on fire.”
“I popped back into the bar and told the barmaid, call the Fire Department. By the time I got back outside it sounded like firecrackers going off in there. That stairway was gone.”
This edition of the The State-Times (Advocate) from Baton Rouge mixes even more homophobic subtext into its reporting.
Source: The State-Times (Advocate), Monday afternoon, June 25, 1973.