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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 died by fire or smoke inhalation. The most likely suspect, a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier in the 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 1968. 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.
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.