Deadliest fire in NOLA remembered, 40 years later - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Deadliest fire in NOLA remembered, 40 years later

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New Orleans, La.--Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the deadliest fire in New Orleans.  The Upstairs Lounge fire claimed 32 lives.  Saturday afternoon people gathered to honor their memories and a time that gave birth to a gay rights movement in the city.

At Chartres and Iberville Streets in the French Quarter, people walk past The Jimani, a restaurant and bar.  "Bodies burned so bad.. there was nothing left but the bones, and they were seared to the floor," explained a man in a YouTube video that documented the fire.

A marker in the sidewalk spells out what happened on the second floor of that building 40-years ago Monday, a dark day in New Orleans history. 

June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire at the bottom of the staircase leading to the Upstairs Lounge, a known gay bar.  "The bartender at the time got 20 victims out of the back of the bar," explained Wil Coleman of Pride New Orleans Celebration.

Flames trapped patrons on the second floor.  Others could see out the windows and reach out, but they couldn't physically get out.  "The windows were all barred and people couldn't get out." said New Orleans resident Mary Christie.  "What a horrible thing, and the fact that they had no sprinkler systems," she said.

Twenty-nine people died in the fire.  Three others died later of their injuries.  The final death toll was 32. 

The Upstairs Lounge fire was the worst fire in New Orleans, and its impact was far-reaching not only because of the tremendous loss of life in this building, but it sparked a gay rights movement in this city.

Many say the fire went largely unreported because it was a gay bar.  "To see such a horrific act of violence and unexpected death happen within the life of this city and for it not to change us.  I think it was very upsetting to the gay and lesbian community of New Orleans," said Rev. Richard Easterling.

Easterling and others gathered for a mass at St. George's Episcopal Church uptown Saturday to remember all 32 victims, including three people who were never identified.  The day after the fire on June 25, 1973, St. George's held a memorial for the survivors and loved ones when no one else would.    

"I'm here for my son, who is a gay man and who has a hard time because of it, and I'm here for the future.. so young men or young women whoever they are, will be accepted for themselves," said Annie Lousteau, one of the dozens of people, who attended the mass.

Honoring the memories of the people who perished comes at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon signal where it stands on same-sex marriage.

Pride New Orleans Celebration says it plans to hold a memorial on the actual fire anniversary, which is Monday.  The memorial will be held at noon at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets. 

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