UpStairs Lounge arson attack
The UpStairs Lounge arson attack took place on June 24, 1973 at a gay bar located on the second floor of the three-story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Thirty-two people were killed by fire or smoke inhalation. The most likely suspect, a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier that day, was never charged.
It was the deadliest arson attack in New Orleans at that time and one of the deadliest attacks on LGBT people in United States history.
On Sunday, June 24, 1973, the final day of Pride Weekend, members of the Metropolitan Community Church, a pro-LGBT Protestant denomination, held services inside the club, located on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets. The MCC was the United States' first gay church, founded in Los Angeles in 1969. After the service, the club hosted free beer and dinner for 125 patrons. At the time of the evening fire, some 60 people were listening to pianist David Gary perform and discussing an upcoming MCC fundraiser for the local Crippled Children’s Hospital.
At 7:56 p.m., a buzzer from downstairs sounded, and bartender Buddy Rasmussen, an Air Force veteran, asked Luther Boggs to answer the door, anticipating a taxi cab driver. Boggs opened the door to find the front staircase engulfed in flames, along with the smell of lighter fluid. Rasmussen immediately led some thirty patrons out of the back exit to the roof, where the group could access a neighboring building's roof and climb down to the ground floor. Some thirty others were accidentally locked inside the second-floor club, some attempting to escape by squeezing through barred windows. One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap, only to fall to his death while burning. Reverend Bill Larson of the MCC clung to the bars of one window until he died, and his charred remains were visible to onlookers for hours afterwards. MCC assistant pastor George "Mitch" Mitchell managed to escape, but then returned to attempt to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both died in the fire, their remains showing them clinging to each other.
Firefighters stationed two blocks away found themselves blocked by cars and pedestrian traffic. One firetruck tried to maneuver on the sidewalk but crashed into a taxi. They arrived to find bar patrons struggling against the security bars and quickly brought the fire under control. Twenty-eight people died at the scene of the sixteen-minute fire, and one died en route to the hospital. Another 18 suffered injuries, of whom three, including Boggs, died.
The official investigation failed to yield any convictions. The only suspect arrested for the attack was Rodger Dale Nunez, a local hustler and troublemaker who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the evening after fighting with another customer. Nunez had been diagnosed with "conversion hysteria" in 1970 and had visited numerous psychiatric clinics. After his arrest, Nunez escaped from psychiatric custody and was never picked up again by police, despite frequent appearances in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed on at least four occasions to starting the fire. He told the friend that he squirted the bottom steps with Ronsonol lighter fluid bought at a local Walgreens and tossed a match. He did not realize, he claimed, that the whole place would go up in flames. Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.
In 1980, the state fire marshal's office, lacking leads, closed the case.
Funerals and media coverage
Coverage of the fire by news outlets minimized the fact that LGBT patrons had constituted the majority of the victims, while editorials and talk radio hosts made light of the event. No government officials made mention of the fire: as Robert L. Camina, writer/director of a documentary about the fire (Upstairs Inferno), said in 2013, “I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government. The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored."
Only one member of the clergy, Reverend William P. Richardson of St. George's Episcopal Church, agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims on June 25. Approximately 80 people attended the event. The next day, Iveson Noland, the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans, rebuked Richardson for hosting the service. Noland received over 100 complaints from parishioners concerning the service, and Richardson's mailbox filled with hate mail.
Two memorial services were held on July 1 at a Unitarian church and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, headed by Louisiana's Methodist bishop Finis Crutchfield and led by MCC founder Reverend Troy Perry, who came from Los Angeles to participate. Mourners exited through the church's main door rather than an available side exit, a demonstration of a new willingness to be identified on camera. Several families did not step forward to claim the bodies of the deceased. A few anonymous individuals stepped forward and paid for the three unknown men's burials, and they were buried with another victim identified as Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave at Holt Cemetery.
In June 1998, the 25th anniversary of the fire, as part of Gay Pride celebrations, a memorial service was organized by Rev. Dexter Brecht of Big Easy Metropolitan Community Church (also known as Vieux Carre MCC) and Toni J. P. Pizanie. It was held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Grand Ball Room and attended by New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter, Rev. Carole Cotton Winn, Senior Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn of Temple Sinai, Rev. Kay Thomas from Grace Fellowship in Christ Jesus, Rev. Perry, and 32 members of the New Orleans community representing the victims. Carter then led a jazz funeral procession to the building on the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets, the site of the club, and members of the local MCC laid a memorial plaque and wreaths. Among the attendees was the niece of victim Clarence McCloskey.
- In 1998 the reconstituted MCC congregation in New Orleans (Big Easy Metropolitan Community Church, since renamed again to MCC of New Orleans) held a 25th anniversary service to commemorate the arson and its 32 deaths. This event is significant because, unlike the one it memorialized, the 300 members of the congregation refused to hide their faces and instead insisted on entering and leaving the event through the church's front doors.
- In 2008 The North American Convocation of Pro-LGBT Christians planned to hold its "Many Stories, One Voice" event in New Orleans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the conference (and the 35th anniversary of the tragedy), but eventually canceled the conference for the year due to Hurricane Gustav.
- In 2008 local artist Skylar Fein constructed an art installation titled "Remember the Upstairs Lounge." The New Orleans Museum of Art has since acquired Fein's art exhibit, which includes a reproduction of the bar.
- A TAPS group in episode 15, Season 8 of Ghost Hunters visited the lounge to encounter alleged ghosts of the fire's casualties. The episode identified the event as the "Jimani Lounge Massacre."
- In 2013, noting the 40th anniversary of the fire, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Michael Aymond, issued a statement of regret that his predecessor, Archbishop Philip Hannan, and the local church leadership ignored the arson attack. Aymond wrote to Time magazine that "In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families ... The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize."
- In 2013, Royd Anderson wrote, directed, and produced a documentary about the tragedy titled The UpStairs Lounge Fire.
- The space on the second floor formerly known as the UpStairs Lounge now contains business offices and a kitchen for the Jimani Lounge (established 1971), which is located on the first floor; the current owner, Jimmy Massacci, and his father, the former owner, personally witnessed the arson and its aftermath. The third floor, then owned by the UpStairs Lounge, remains unused and partially damaged. The building itself dates back to at least 1848, when the earliest-known sale of the building is documented.
- The fire was the third MCC-targeted arson in the denomination's history, following a January 27, 1973, arson at the church's headquarters in Los Angeles (resulting in the destruction and collapse of the building with no injuries) and another 1973 arson at an MCC church in Nashville, Tennessee (also with complete destruction of the church and its furnishings but no injuries).
- Johnny Townsend (2011). Let the Faggots Burn:The UpStairs Lounge Fire.
- "The Tragedy of THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE". The Jimani Lounge.
- Alyne A. Pustanio (2010). "The Haunting Tragedy of the UpStairs Lounge". AlynePustiano.com.
- Erik Ose (July 3, 2008). "Gay Weddings and 32 Funerals: Remembering the UpStairs Lounge Fire". Huffington Post.
- Diane Anderson-Minshall (15 November 2013). Remembering the Worst Mass Killing of LGBT People in U.S. History. The Advocate.
- Eric Newhouse, Associated Press (1973-06-25). "Arson Eyed in New Orleans Fire". Abilene Reporter-News, Texas.
- Freund, Helen (June 22, 2013). "UpStairs Lounge fire provokes powerful memories 40 years later". New Orleans Times-Picayune. Retrieved June 26, 2013.
- The Upstairs Fire - June 24, 1973 - 25th Anniversary Memorial Service
- "Pro-LGBT Christians to mark 35th anniversary of deadliest fire in New Orleans’ history".
- Doug MacCash (Sunday, November 02, 2008, 5:00 AM). "Skylar Fein: Installation reignites memory of a deadly fire". The Times-Picayune.
- "Ghost Hunters - Season 8, Episode 15: French Quarter Massacre". Syfy. September 19, 2012.
- "The Upstairs Lounge Fire: The Little Known Story of the Largest Killing of Gays in US History". Time. June 21, 2013. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- "Mass killing at New Orleans gay lounge remembered 40 years later". Nicole, Erin. WGNO-ABC. (June 24, 2013).
- "The UpStairs Lounge Fire (2013 trailer)". Royd Anderson Productions. Accessed on June 16, 2013.
- "The Building". The Jimani Lounge.
- Vicki Lynn Eaklor (2008). Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century. p. 136.
- Dudley Clendinen; Adam Nagourney (5 June 2001). Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. Simon and Schuster. p. 181. ISBN 978-0-684-86743-4. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
- The Rev. Elder Troy D. Perry; The Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson (1 November 1997). Report to the President for the White House Conference On Hate Crimes. UFMCC.
- Remembering the UpStairs Lounge: The U.S.A.’s Largest LGBT Massacre Happened 40 Years Ago Today (24 June 2013)