“It Took Away The Rest Of My Life”

On June 24, 1973, thirty-two people died after the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar on Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana burned from an arson attack. It is the deadliest fire in New Orleans and the second deadliest act of violence against LGBTQ people in U.S. history. Twenty-nine died at the scene, and three died later from their injuries.

Patrons at the bar, who participated in various celebrations, events, and activities, were celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. There were around sixty-five people still in the bar around eight pm when the buzzer sounded downstairs. When it continued to ring, the bartender, Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen sent a regular downstairs. When he opened the door, a fireball burst through the door. The draft sucked the fire upstairs and within second, the walls were burning. Douglas Rasmussen escorted twenty people through the back exit to adjoining rooftops. A few, like Francis Dufrene, whose body was on fire, squeezed through the burglar bars on the windows.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze around sixteen minutes after receiving the call. Many of the victims were so badly burned that they could only be identified by dental records, including several victims who were patients of another victim, Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr., a Jefferson Parish dentist. Twenty-nine of the victims, including the only woman, were identified, but three were so badly burned that they were unidentifiable. Fifteen men who leaped from the fire escape were injured, with six in serious condition.

One of the few press articles about the tragedy was a TimesPicayune headline which called the scene “Hitler’s Incinerators.” No public officials spoke about the event, though New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu and Governor Edwin Edwards had issued condolences in November after six people died in a fire at the Rault Center, and in January after eight died in an arson at a downtown Howard Johnson’s. Families refused to claim the victims. The three unidentified victims and Ferris LeBlanc, whose family did not know of his death were buried in unmarked graves in a potter’s field. In 2015, LeBlanc’s family – who had accepted his sexuality – learned of his fate. They had lost touch after LeBlanc left California. While they eventually found records, the family was unable to locate LeBlanc’s grave.

Police investigated for two months and issued a 64-page report in August. They found little evidence: a can of lighter fluid at the scene, and two suspects, David Dubose and Roger Nunez neither of whom were ever prosecuted. David Dubose was a teenager who confessed to the crime, though he soon recanted. His alibi was confirmed and he passed a polygraph test. Police focused on their second suspect, Roger Nunez, who had been kicked out of the bar earlier that night for fighting with another patron, according to Michael Scarborough, another patron’s testimony. As he left, Nenuz had said “something to the effect of ‘I’m going to burn this place down,’ or ‘I’m going to burn you out,'” Scarborough told police.

Bur before he could be interviewed, Nunez had a seizure. He was taken to Charity Hospital. When he was released, the police were not notified and it took months for them to find him. When questioned, he denied setting the fire and that he wasn’t sure had been at the Upstairs bar that night. People he knew claimed that he had confessed to the crime. At least one source has inverted the identities of the victims, stating that it was Dubose who patronized the bar that night, and not Nunez.

In the final report, the police department concluded that, “Although there is speculation of arson, as of the writing of this report, there is no physical evidence to indicate anything other than this being a fire of undetermined origin.” The coroner classified all 32 deaths as “accidental fire fatalities.”

It took a week before a church agreed to hold a memorial. St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the MCC, promised to safeguard the mourners’ identities, and offered to let them leave through the back door when television crews appeared outside the front door. No one accepted.

In 2013, composer Wayne Self created a musical “Upstairs,” based on the arson. He has created composite characters of the thirty-two victims. A documentary, “The UpStairs Lounge Fire” was also created that year.

A documentary of the tragedy, Upstairs Inferno premiered in New Orleans on June 24, 2015, the 42nd anniversary. The film has traveled around the world, including many US states, Greece, and Ireland.

ABC also released a documentary, “Prejudice and Pride” on June 24, 2018, the 45th anniversary.

The deadliest attack on LGBTQ people occurred on June 12, 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The club, located within twenty miles of Disney World, billed itself as “Orlando’s Premier Gay Nightclub.” Saturdays were “Latin Night” at the club. Around two a.m. just before last call, the gunman entered the club, which had around three hundred and twenty people inside. Over the next three hours, when police killed him, he killed thirty-eight in the club. Two other victims died on the street outside the club, and nine died en route or at hospitals.

Unlike in the aftermath of the Upstairs arson, many public officials issued statements. Florida Gov. Rick Scott asserted that “this is clearly an act of terror” and that he had declared a state of emergency in Orange County, ensuring that resources were made available from the state immediately.

The shooting marked the first time that Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature was used in the United States. The feature had been used several dozen times over the last two years, including during the Paris attack in November, 2015 and wildfires in Alberta, Canada in April, 2016.

Over a year later, Pulse owner Barbara Poma announced that the site will become a memorial and museum to commemorate survivors and victims. The onePULSE Foundation, the non-profit which Poma founded and serves as executive director and CEO, fill fund the initiative.

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