Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on July 1, 2016.

Déjà Vu Nightmare

A new film documents the 1973 Up Stairs Lounge fire in New Orleans—until the killings in Orlando in June, the deadliest event targeting gays in U.S. history.

BY SCOTT SUTHERLAND

Near the close of Robert Camina’s new documentary film “Upstairs Inferno,” an observer expresses the hope that “no one has to live through something like this ever again.”

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The event in question was a 1973 fire that killed 32 people at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay club in New Orleans. The fire, which was deliberately set, was the deadliest in the city’s history but one that remains little-known beyond New Orleans. In Camina’s telling, the fire and its devastation were the prelude to an equally traumatic aftermath that exposed a noxious homophobia in New Orleans, one that seemed to excuse a callous disregard for the people killed and injured in the Up Stairs Lounge. A trio of the region’s most powerful figures—Gov. Edwin Edwards, New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, and Archbishop Philip Hannan—stubbornly refused to call for a day of mourning and barely acknowledged the fire had occurred. The police seemed only interested in a cursory investigation of the fire, with one high-ranking police official publicly deriding the Up Stairs Lounge as a refuge of “thieves” and “queers.” A widely used shorthand for the fire was “fruit fry.”

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The reality is that we’ve been living through such events ever since, most recently the June 12 killing of 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in American history. It also surpassed the Up Stairs Lounge fire as the nation’s deadliest attack on LGBTQ people. “Whether bullets or arson, this is nightmarish déjà vu,” wrote Camina in a statement issued hours after the Orlando shootings. Much has changed over the four decades since the Up Stairs Lounge fire, however, and instead of silence and denigration, the people who died at the Pulse nightclub have been remembered with enormous public outpourings of grief and compassion. “This was an act of terror and an act of hate,” said President Obama in a White House press conference later in the day on June 12, “and as Americans we are united in grief and outrage and in resolve to defend our people.”

“Upstairs Inferno” is a reminder of an era when some groups, targeted with violence, couldn’t necessarily count on the support of the nation’s chief executive in their pursuit of justice. The film is Camina’s workmanlike account of the Up Stairs Lounge fire that occurred on June 24, 1973, on the second floor of a three-story building on Chartres Street, in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Camina relies heavily on eyewitnesses and people who were in the bar the night of the fire, and many of the interviews are emotionally raw, the subjects still obviously haunted by the experience. Fire professionals will most likely want more details on the building and the dynamics of the fire than Camina provides, but his story is nevertheless a valuable reminder of fire’s potential as a lethal weapon.

UPSTAIRS INFERNO - Trailer 1 [HD] (www.UpstairsInferno.com) from Camina Entertainment on Vimeo.

About 60 people were in the club shortly before 8 p.m., when a buzzer from the first floor sounded in the bar. The entrance to the club was a heavy door at the top of a flight of stairs, and a patron opened it to find out who was ringing the buzzer. A blast of fire and smoke shot into the bar with enough force to lift the indoor/outdoor carpet off the floor and immediately fill much of the space with fire. The fire escape was cut off within seconds. A bartender led about 20 patrons to a rear exit and escaped onto the roof. Others tried to get out through the large front windows that extended almost from floor to ceiling, but horizontal bars, installed for safety if the windows were blown out, prevented most from escaping. Other windows had been covered with wood paneling. Fire crews arrived, and the blaze was put out in just over 15 minutes. When firefighters entered the club, they found the remains of 23 bodies stacked in front of the windows. The burned head and arm of one victim extended beyond the bars of a window, in full view of onlookers in the street below, immediately becoming a grim emblem of the event.

In its features and outcome, Up Stairs Lounge bears a resemblance to the Happy Land social club fire, another arson event that killed 87 people in New York City in 1990. The staircase leading to the Up Stairs Lounge was carpeted, wood paneling covered the walls, and draperies hung in the stairwell to hide pipes and other building features. The lower steps had been doused with lighter fluid, and the fire grew quickly in the enclosed stairwell, finally exploding when the door was opened on the second floor. The lounge itself was also filled with combustibles, including carpeting, flocked wallpaper, and furnishings. As in the Happy Land fire, the suspected arsonist, a man named Rodger Nuñez, was a patron; he’d been tossed out of the Up Stairs Lounge earlier in the evening for obnoxious behavior, and returned to start a fire. Evidence seems to suggest that Nuñez, who had wrestled with a variety of psychological afflications, was more interested in putting a scare into the establishment than killing anyone, and one historian describes it for Camina as “a childish prank gone hideously wrong.” The police never questioned Nuñez, though the fire marshal’s office did. Nuñez committed suicide in 1974, and the fire marshal’s office closed its investigation in 1980. While all indications were that Nuñez was responsible, the fire remains officially unsolved.

Camina, a Texas-based filmmaker, enlisted the assistance of NFPA’s Charles S. Morgan Library as he assembled fire investigation information and other archival materials for the film, including a number of photographs. “As people struggle to understand why so many patrons died during the Up Stairs Lounge fire, the photographs are critically important in providing an explanation,” he said. “In addition, the NFPA photographs provide excellent context, strengthening the documentary’s narrative and supporting the powerful on-camera interviews.” The film is currently on the festival circuit around the country, and Camina is hopeful it can soon find wider distribution.

In 2003, on the 30th anniversary of the fire, a commemorative plaque including the names of the victims was installed in the sidewalk below the building, at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets. In 2013, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, son of former Mayor Moon Landrieu, issued a certificate commemorating the fire’s 40th anniversary—a gesture of acknowledgement that was at once meaningful, necessary, and, for some of the voices captured in “Upstairs Inferno,” four decades too late.

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor for NFPA Journal.

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