June 24, 1973
New Orleans, Louisiana
An arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge kills 32 and wounds 15
During the final day of Pride Week, members of the Metropolitan Community Church, a pro-gay rights church, had been discussing a fundraiser benefitting the local Crippled Children’s Hospital. A door buzzer rang and when the door was opened it was discovered the front staircase was consumed in flames and the scent of lighter fluid was present. The opening of the door fueled the flames with oxygen, creating a backdraft.
Some of those in the building were able to escape thanks to a bartender, Buddy Rasmussen. These patrons were able to exit to the roof and escape to the roof’s of nearby buildings. Others were trapped in the second-floor bar, with no exit signs visible. Some tried to escape the flames by climbing through narrow gaps in the security bars covering the windows, including MCC pastor Rev. Bill Larson who screamed “oh, God, no” as horrified onlookers watched him burn to death; his body remained visible for hours as investigations were conducted. Only one person was able to escape the building through the 14 inch gap between the bars, but he unfortunately fell to his death while burning. Assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell was able to escape but returned to the burning building to rescue his boyfriend Louis Broussard. Both died in the blaze, their bodies were found clinging to each other.
The body of Rev. Bill Larson
Media coverage of the fire was extremely limited and what was presented diminished the fact that most of the victims were from the gay community. Additionally, Reverend William P. Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church agreed to hold a prayer service in which 80 people attended, but led to over 100 complaints logged against him and his mailbox being filled with hate-mail.
Only one suspect had been questioned, Rodger Dale Nunez, who was dismissed. According to a friend some time later, Nunez confessed on several occasions to the arson. He claimed to not have intended to set the entire building on fire, just the steps. Nunez committed suicide in 1974. The case was officially closed in 1980 due to a lack of leads.