The Upstairs Lounge arson attack took place 40 years ago in New Orleans
32 people were killed when a gay bar was set on fire by an unruly patron
Deep rooted homophobia meant the tragedy was largely ignored by local officials and the church at the time
Out of fear and shame, some family members of the deceased refused to claim the ashes of their 'loved' ones
Now the Catholic Church has apologized and the city is commemorating the anniversary of the fire and the people who lost their lives
By DAILY MAIL REPORTER
New Orleans marked the 40th anniversary on Saturday of one of the saddest days of its history and a tragic event which is regarded as the largest mass murder of gay people in U.S. history.
The Upstairs Lounge arson attack occurred on June 24, 1973 when 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 those who managed to escape watched helplessly as friends and lovers burned to death before their eyes.
At the time local politicians and religious leaders wanted nothing to do with it and little effort was made to bring whoever started the suspected arson to justice.
The powerful Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans at the time, Phillip Hannan, did not offer his support or sympathy to victims.
Now 40 years on, the event is gaining greater recognition for its significant role in the fight for greater rights for gay people.
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This year’s milestone anniversary was marked with a special mass in New Orleans, while the current Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans has apologized for the church's silence over the tragic event.
'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 recently wrote in an email to TIME.
'The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.'
At St. George's Episcopal Church a Mass was held on Saturday 22 June to remember the 32 people who died. It was the one of only two churches to eventually carry out services for the dead.
The fire is believed to have been started by an unruly patron who returned to the UpStairs Lounge some 30 minutes after being thrown out and deliberately set the stairwell on fire.
On discovering the blaze, the barman immediately led some thirty patrons out of the back exit to the roof until the group could climb down from another building's roof to the ground floor.
Sadly some thirty others were left inside the second-floor club, and some attempted to squeeze through barred windows in order to escape.
One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap, only to fall to his death while burning.
Another man clung to the bars of one window until he died, his charred remains were visible to onlookers for hours afterwards.
George ‘Mitch’ Mitchell managed to escape, but returned to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard; only for both to die in the fire - their remains showed them clinging to each other.
When questioned, Nunez went into convulsions and was taken to hospital, where he escaped.
Nunez was never picked up again by police, despite frequent sightings in the French Quarter afterwards.
A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed to the deed while drunk on at least four occasions.
He had told the friend that he squirted the bottom steps with Ronsonol bought at a local Walgreens and tossed in a match. He didn't realize, he claimed, that the whole place would go up in
New Orleans in the early 1970s was an extremely homophobic place as typified by the response of authorities following the fire.
Neither Mayor Moon Landrieu or any other government official made a public statement about the tragedy.
No arrest was made in the case, even though authorities knew who set the fire.
Out of fear and shame, some family members of the deceased refused to claim the ashes of their 'loved' ones.
On the issue of identifying the victims, Major Henry Morris, a detective with the New Orleans Police Department said, 'We don't even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.'
Churches were either silent or subtly suggested the victims deserved what they got, most refused the use of their facilities for a memorial service.
Father Bill Richardson of St. George's Episcopal Church, however, believed the dead should have a service.
He graciously allowed, over the protest of many parishioners, the use of St. George's sanctuary for a prayer service, which was attended by roughly 80 people.
He was subsequently chastised by his bishop and received no small amount of hate mail. Days later a Unitarian Church also held a small memorial service.
A larger service was held on July 1 at St. Mark's United Methodist Church on the edge of the French Quarter.
The UpStairs Lounge fire was a seminal moment in the history of gay New Orleans and significant advancements have been made in the years since and now the city leads the South in extending civil rights to gay city employees.
Other events being held to mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy include a lecture at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a jazz funeral procession from there to the site of the fire and even a musical.
The city recognizes domestic partnerships for gay and straight couples, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu - son of Moon Landrieu - has issued an official certificate commemorating the anniversary of the fire, something that would have been unthinkable for his father to do at the time of the fire.
Independent filmmaker Robert Camina is making a documentary about the tragedy which documents what happened and how far the advancement of gay rights has come in the ensuing 40 years.
He is currently in pre-production on this full length feature entitled 'Upstairs Inferno' and is aiming to primarily tell the story through emotional interviews of the survivors, families of the victims, and key players in the aftermath.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2346743/Scandal-New-Orleans-firebomb-attack-killed-32-Forty-years-man-largest-massacre-gay-people-U-S-history-escaped-punishment-officials-finally-apologize-inaction.html#ixzz3Arvj33Uk
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