The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Oregonian Covers for Second Day

Probers Scrutinize Swiftness of Blaze

The suspicious speed of a fire that killed 29 persons in a Sunday night “beer bust” in a French Quarter bar was under close investigation today.

For the 29 trapped in the Upstairs lounge, located on the second floor of a three-story building, the end was like a quick, searing blast from a blow torch.

Firemen said the fire lasted 16 minutes. It consumed the interior of the bar but 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 first came up the stairs fast,” he said. “There was an immense smoke in the room immediately.”

Some leap

 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 Upstairs stairway entrance.  He said two men dashed down the stairs and got 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 glass 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 lived was in a bar next door to the stairway of the Upstairs 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.”

Gay group to mourn fire victims

Gay Liberation Movement leaders are planning a day of mourning Sunday for “our dead brothers and sisters” who died in a fire at a crowded French Quarter bar.

Morris Kight, Gay Liberation Movement founder, and the Rev. Troy Perry, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church for homosexuals, announced plans Monday for the day of mourning.

Police said 29 persons died in a second-floor fire at the Up Stairs Lounge Sunday night. Officers said the bar was a known gathering place for homosexuals.

Kight said his office in Los Angeles had suspended other operations and was organizing gay leaders across the country to make the catastrophe here.

William Larson, interim pastor of a local gay church, has been identified by witnesses as one of the victims of the blaze. One survivor, Linn Quinton, said he last saw the pastor caught in the burglar bars across the  front window, screaming, “Oh, God, no!” to the skies as he burned to death.

Other members of his church remember him as a dedicated pastor, who brought new members to the newly founded Metropolitan Community Church, located in a converted old home here.

“We’ve been a small, struggling congregation since we were founded here in May 1971,” said one church deacon.”

“Since Brother Larson took over as interim pastor, we’ve been a thriving, promising congregation,” he said.

“He believed in freedom and love,” said the deacon. “He wanted the right of individuals to make their own choice—without harm to anyone.”

When the fire struck, Larson was sitting at a table with a party of eight friends, two of whom died in the fire.

The Oregonian picks up wire stories about the fire on the following day also. 

Source: The Oregonian, June 26, 1973.
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