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The Upstairs Lounge Fire: When Dozens of Gay People Were Killed in 1973

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On June 24, 1973, a flash fire tore through a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. In less than 20 minutes, 32 people were killed, dozens more critically injured and the ones who managed to escape watched helplessly as friends and lovers burned to death before their eyes. It is believed to be the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history until Sunday, when at least 50 people were shot and killed at an Orlando gay nightclub. Yet politicians and religious leaders were relatively silent. The powerful Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans at the time, Phillip Hannan, did not offer his support or sympathy to victims. And while all signs pointed to arson, the police investigation ran cold. No one has ever been prosecuted.

In this week’s magazine, TIME tells the story of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, which remains little known and even less understood despite the epic scale of the tragedy. Events like Stonewall have entered the canon of GLBT history, while other, equally significant moments have lingered in the background. But the movement is still relatively young in the arc of American history and as Harvey Milk once said, “A reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of a building is widely covered. The events that started the American Revolution were the meetings in homes, pubs, on street corners.”

As the stories of a survivor who remembers that tragic night, the founder of the church whose local congregation held services in the bar and the lead police investigator on the case show, the Upstairs fire was one such event.

Forty years later, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans apologized for its silence in a statement to TIME: “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said via email on June 17. “The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.” In a month that anticipates a potentially landmark Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, the apology is another sign that times are changing.

Click here to read Elizabeth Dias’ full story about the fire at the Upstairs Lounge.

The bartender, Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen (right), and his boyfriend Adam Fontenot (left), were regular fixtures at the Upstairs. Patrons described Buddy as a “mother hen” who would always look out for everyone.Courtesy of Johnny Townsend
The Upstairs Lounge in the New Orleans French Quarter was a safe haven for gays in 1973. Every Sunday night from 5pm to 7pm, the second-floor bar held its weekly “beer bust”—all you can drink drafts for $1. It was a refuge where patrons could laugh, love, and even worship without fear. The Metropolitan Community Church, the only denomination at the time that welcomed gays and lesbians, often held services in the bar’s back-room theater.Courtesy of Johnny Townsend
UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack
On Sunday, June 24, 1973—Pride Sunday in New Orleans—everyone was singing Broadway tunes around the grand piano. Just after 7:52pm, the door buzzer kept ringing, announcing someone was at the street below. A patron went to open the door. A fireball burst through.The Times-Picayune / AP
Panic erupted and everyone raced to the windows. They were covered with metal bars. Rasmussen called people to follow him—he knew a back exit. Only about 20 of the 65 patrons heard. Someone on the street called the fire station, but the Upstairs Lounge burned in 16 minutes.Gerald E. Arnold—The Times-Picayune/Landov
The MCC Rev. Bill Larson tried to push an air-conditioning unit out one of the windows to make an escape route between the bars. He was halfway out when the windowpane above fell and trapped him. His mannequin-like corpse remained in the window for hours after the fire. Thirty-two people were killed. Ronnie LeBOEUF—States-Item/Times-Picayune/Landov
Luther Boggs being helped on to a stretcher.Ronnie LeBOEUF—States-Item/Times-Picayune/Landov
Linn Quinton
The few survivors who managed to squeeze through the windows, bodies on fire, were rushed to Charity Hospital.Ronnie LeBOEUF—States-Item/Times-Picayune/Landov
UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack
First responders found bodies in piles inside—17 in one, 4 in another, and piles of two all around. One man, Duane George Mitchell, had escaped through the back door with Rasmussen. He realized his partner Louis Horace Broussard was still inside. He raced back into the burning bar. Their bodies were found fused together.Jack Thornell—AP
Francis Dufresne holding a photo album documenting his recovering from burns he suffered during the 1973 fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, LA.
Francis Dufrene was 21 the night of the fire. That night he was on a first date with Eddie Hosea Warren, whose brother and mother also came to the Upstairs that night. Dufrene escaped through the bars, his head and right arm on fire. Eddie, his mother and brother, all perished. Dufrene took pictures of his wounds to document his recovery process.Daymon Gardner for TIME
Francis Dufresne reading the names of the 32 victims of the Upstairs Lounge fire in 1973.  A memorial plaque has been placed in front of what used to be the lounge entrance on Iverbille Street.
Last week, Dufrene visited the site of the Upstairs Fire for the first time since that day 40 years ago. A memorial plaque lies barely noticeable in the brick sidewalk at the foot of the stairwell where the fire began.Daymon Gardner for TIME
Francis Dufresne, a survivor and burn victim of the 1973 fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, LA.
No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the fire. Dufrene, and others, were skeptical of the two-month-long police investigation. Dufrene says, “I guess they figured, They were gay, so what?”Daymon Gardner for TIME
Francis Dufresne in the bedroom of his home in Harahan, LA.
Churches in the area, including the powerful Catholic Archdiocese, refused to offer support and host the funeral service for victims. Dufrene, a Catholic at the time, now attends Harahan Baptist Church and says he is no longer part of the gay community. He lives in the same house where he was born and where he recovered from the fire.Daymon Gardner for TIME

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