Forty years ago today, on June 24, 1973, thirty-two people lost their lives after a fire broke out in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
The fire was set by an arsonist, believed to have been an unruly patron who had been ejected from the bar earlier that same evening. He returned to the building and set the stairwell leading to the second-floor UpStairs Lounge ablaze, cutting off the main escape route.
Upon discovering the inferno, the bartender began leading people to safety on the roof through a back exit. Approximately twenty people escaped with their lives before that exit became unusable, but dozens remained trapped inside. Bars on the windows, intended to prevent revelers from falling, prevented their escape from the blaze.
As smoke and flames engulfed the building, many who had managed to escape stood by helplessly and watched as their friends and lovers burned to death. George Mitchell, an assistant pastor at New Orleans' Metropolitan Community Church -- which held services in the bar -- got out, but quickly returned to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Their bodies were found in the charred rubble of the UpStairs Lounge, clinging to each other. The MCC's pastor, Rev. Bill Larson, made it to a window but could not squeeze through the 14-inch gap in the bars. He got stuck halfway and died screaming "Oh God, no!" as the flames consumed his flesh.
It was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and remains the largest mass murder of LGBT people ever to occur in the United States. Yet public officials in New Orleans reacted with a mixture of silence and indifference.
In a gesture that's come to symbolize New Orleans's horrifying callousness about the tragedy, firefighters who responded to the blaze left Rev. Larson's body -- which the flames had fused to the window frame -- hanging out of the UpStairs Lounge and visible to passers-by on the street throughout the initial investigation.
Neither Mayor Moon Landrieu, nor powerful Catholic Archbishop Phillip Hannan, nor any other government officials spoke out publicly about the fire. One local church after another refused to hold a public memorial service, but when Episcopal Rev. William Richardson held a small prayer service in memory of the victims, he received an avalanche of hate mail. Episcopal Bishop Iveson Noland also reportedly scolded Richardson for his kindness. Radio hosts around New Orleans made terrible jokes in the aftermath of the tragedy. "What do we bury them in? Fruit jars," one said just a day after the fire.
And although all signs pointed to arson -- and a local troublemaker is said to have claimed responsibility for setting the blaze multiple times -- no one was ever prosecuted.
Survivors who'd lost friends or lovers in the fire had to keep silent about their grief while at work, or else they risked outing themselves as gay and losing their jobs. Some victims' families refused to claim the bodies out of embarrassment that a relative had been killed at a fire in a gay bar. Three victims were never identified, and were buried in unmarked graves.
Forty years later, the UpStairs Lounge fire is beginning to receive the official attention it deserved from the start. Gregory Aymond, the current Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, apologized for his church's silence in the aftermath of the fire, writing in an email to TIME:
In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families. The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.
St. George's Episcopal Church, where Rev. William Richardson held his memorial service many years ago, had a special Mass last Saturday to commemorate the lives of the 32 people who perished in the fire. And current Mayor Mitch Landrieu -- son of Moon Landrieu, who was mayor at the time of the fire -- issued an official certificate commemorating the anniversary.
Playwright Wayne Self premiered Upstairs, a musical about the fire, in New Orleans at Café Istanbul last week. Upstairs Inferno, a new crowd-funded documentary, is now in the works; check out the trailer below. And planned commemorations include a lecture at the Historic New Orleans Collection followed by traditional jazz funeral procession ending at the site of the fire.