Gay bar tragedy: Renewed search for victims of 1973 upstairs lounge fire

Customers at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans (Photo: Upstairs Inferno)

Before the Pulse nightclub tragedy in 2016, the worst mass killing of people in a gay bar in the United States took place in New Orleans in 1973.

An arson attack on a gay bar called the Upstairs Lounge on Sunday afternoon left 32 people dead.

However, unlike Pulse, this attack took place at a very different time. When it became clear that tragedy had struck a gay bar, city officials acted with a lack of sympathy for those who died. Some families didn’t even come forward to claim bodies, such was the stigma of having a gay parent.

Local churches refused to hold memorial services. Outside of Louisiana, the tragedy quickly fell into oblivion.

A handful of those who died have never been identified. Four of the bodies were buried by authorities in an unmarked grave in the local “potter’s field”. Unfortunately, a record of exactly where these bodies were buried was lost in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina tragedy.

It wasn’t until 2013 that New Orleans erected a permanent memorial to mark the tragedy and acknowledged how poorly the victims had been served at the time. On June 23 this year, he issued a formal apology: the day before the 49th anniversary of the fire.

Now, city officials have announced they plan to step up efforts to find the victims in the unmarked grave.

Find the lost victims of the upstairs living room fire

Last Thursday, the city council passed a motion promising to renew efforts to find the lost bodies. This opens up the possibility of DNA testing to identify those who have not been named before. It also means that they can receive a proper burial.

“The city’s callous and deeply inadequate response…rooted in pervasive anti-gay sentiment” has compounded the suffering of the families and friends of the victims, states the motion drafted by Councilman Jean-Paul “JP” Morrell.

The motion says the city has a moral obligation to do everything in its power to assist “the recovery and dignified burial of the victims of the UpStairs Lounge massacre.”

Morell took to Twitter to say, “We cannot change the tragedies that occurred at the Up Stairs Lounge that fateful night, or the backlash survivors faced. But what we can do is ensure that these remaining victims receive a proper burial.

The fire in the living room upstairs
An arson attack has turned the upstairs living room into a raging hell (Pictured: upstairs living room)

Of the four bodies buried in the same plot, one was previously identified as Ferris LeBlanc, 50, a World War II veteran. An anonymous caller called officials to say LeBlanc was wearing a distinctive antique ring made from a silver spoon.

The other three bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Related: New Orleans City Council honors 32 gay lives lost in 1973 arson

What happened in the upstairs living room?

A documentary, Upstairs Inferno, which can be viewed online, tells the story of the fire and its aftermath.

The upstairs lounge was on the second floor of a corner building on the outskirts of the French Quarter. It opened in 1970 and became known for its small plays and cabaret shows. On Sunday, it also hosted a beer bust for members of the liberal, mostly gay Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).

It was located at the top of a rickety staircase, carpeted with an old flammable carpet (fire regulations on the subject did not come into force until 1971). A fire broke out at the bottom of the stairs. Acting as a fireplace, the stairwell funneled fierce flames upwards, trapping many of those in the bar. Bars on the windows prevented them from jumping to safety.

Twenty-nine people died at the scene and three more died later in hospital.

Police found a can of lighter fluid — purchased a block away at a local Walgreens — at the foot of the stairs. They called the tragedy “probable arson”.

No one has ever been arrested and charged with the crime.

Who burned down the living room upstairs?

Many believe the man responsible was a 26-year-old “hustler” named Rodger Dale Nunez, of Abbeville, Louisiana. He had gone to the bar earlier in the afternoon to harass customers. A confrontation ensued and Nunez was punched in the face. He reportedly burst in, threatening to “wear you all out”.

Nunez married a woman shortly after the fire, but when questioned by police she told them they never consummated the marriage. They slept separately. He told her he was gay after they got married.

Nunez was questioned by officials about the fire but denied any involvement. He was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died by suicide in 1974.

Some people who knew Nunez even said he admitted to the crime while drunk, but denied it when sober. They say it was probably an attempt to scare the customers away rather than kill them.

About James K. Bonnette

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