29 Die in New Orleans Fire
Deacon in Tavern Blames Arsonist by Joseph P. Manguno
New Orleans (UPI) A church deacon who attended a Sunday beer bust inside a “gay bar” on the fringe of the French Quarter said yesterday he believes an arsonist started a flash fire that killed 29 persons inside the tavern in just 16 minutes.
Police searched for clues to prove it. Investigators questioned the 15 persons injured by the blaze about reports that a fight preceded the fire, and that some of the survivors smelled gasoline when the fire flashed.
Fire officials said burglar bars on the windows prevented victims from escaping. The French Quarter had not had such a serious fire since blazes in 1788 and 1794 practically destroyed the famed district.
“Someone threw something in there,” said Courtney Craighead, a deacon of the Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. He said there was no explosion but he believes an arsonist poured gasoline in a stairwell and set it afire.
“The fire came up the stairs fast. There was an immense smoke in the room immediately,” said Craighead who fled to safety out a rear exit.
“The Detective Bureau is investigating witnesses, looking into the possibility of arson,” said Frank Hayward, a police department spokesman.
Of the 29 victims, only one was a woman. The others died—body stacked upon body—in a tavern called “The Upstairs,” a second floor spot which had some windows covered with boards and bars.
“It was a gay bar—you know, homosexual, very gay,” said Antoinette Evelyn Harris, owner of a tavern next door. “Every Sunday they have this beer bust with all the beer you can drink for a dollar.”
Witnesses said two men were thrown out of the bar shortly before the fire started—one for fighting, the other for being a nuisance.
“There were a couple of guys quarreling at the top of the stairs,” said William White, 18, of Pineville, La., who was headed to the party with a friend. “I don’t like no kind of fights, so we left. We weren’t more than a block away when I looked back. The whole place was lit up by fire.”
The tavern is divided into three sections—a piano bar, a dance room and a place where plays and other activities are presented. The fire broke out in the piano bar.
In the front, the building’s windows were covered by burglar bars and a large wooden panel. Both prevented victims from escaping and fire officials said the boarded windows probably violated the city’s fire code.
“We are checking several reports that some people smelled something like gasoline,” said William J. McCrossen, New Orleans fire superintendent.
Of the 15 persons injured when they jumped to the street to escape the inferno, six remained in serious condition at Charity Hospital. The tavern itself was a charred ruin.
“They were just piled up—people in a mass. One falls, the another falls…it’s just a mass of death,” said Dr. Carl H. Rabin, Orleans Parish coroner, describing the scene.
The blaze was reported at 7:56 p.m. Sunday and brought under control by firemen 16 minutes later. All but a few of the 29 victims were clustered at the base of boarded up windows on one side of the bar.
A bathroom and the only exit were located on the other side of the room. Some of the dead were found piled there.
Officials at the Coroner’s Office said identifying the victims would be difficult because they were burned so badly.
Officials said it was the worst fire disaster in New Orleans’ modern history. It was the latest in the series of disastrous blazes in the city—the last of which was at the Rault Center , a downtown high-rise complex. Six persons were killed there, including three who jumped to their deaths. Several persons jumped to safety in Sunday’s fire.
“They didn’t move when they hit,” a witness said. “One guy weight about 200 pounds and he was still on fire when he hit the street.”