Search for victims resumes in 49-year-old arson at New Orleans gay bar that killed 32

·3 min read

A decades-old search for the missing remains of some who died in an inferno at a New Orleans gay bar has resumed following a vote from the New Orleans City Council.

On June 24, 1973, an arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a bar in the French Quarter neighborhood popular for the LGBTQ+ community, killed 32 people. No arrests were made in connection to the fire, which police described as “probable arson,” according to Queerty.

It was the largest massacre of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, when a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 more at an Orlando gay nightclub.

Four of the victims’ remains from the 1973 blaze were recovered and given unmarked graves in a “remote potter’s field on the edge of town,” according to council members. But all records of their exact location were later lost, reported ABC News, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

In the years since, the city has been publicly criticized and accused of anti-gay sentiment and lack of response to the tragedy. On June 23, the day before the fire’s 49th anniversary, the council issued a formal apology for its inaction.

The resolution stated that “in the aftermath of the emergency, the city of New Orleans did not declare a day of mourning for the fire victims or provide adequate aid and comfort to traumatized survivors and families who suffered disrespect, disregard and harassment due to the Up Stairs Lounge becoming widely known as a ‘gay bar’ in an era of anti-queer stigma,” adding that “those who perished were not adequately and publicly mourned as valuable and irreplaceable members of the community.”

JP Morrell, one of the councilmen, announced the same day that his office would spearhead the effort.

“The city we are today is not the city we were then,” Morrell said in the statement. “The City of New Orleans’ lack of response to the deadliest fire in our history has kept individuals from mourning their loved ones, but today we took a step in the right direction.”

Months later, the motion to revive the search was passed by the council on Aug. 4.

“The city’s callous and deeply inadequate response to the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — rooted in pervasive anti-gay sentiment — exacerbated the suffering of the families and friends of the victims of the attack,” the motion stated. “The council believes the city has a moral obligation to take all steps within its power to facilitate the recovery and dignified internment of the victims of the UpStairs Lounge massacre.”

The motion directed city departments to take “all appropriate steps necessary” to facilitate the recovery of the remains.

One of the four victims with missing remains, the only one identified, was a World War II veteran named Ferris LeBlanc. His family told ABC News they were hopeful about the council’s effort.

“The council has promised to get to the bottom of this issue and do everything they can to help us bring an end to this story,” LeBlanc’s family said in a statement to ABC News. “We are cautiously optimistic for this renewed interest and are hopeful it will end in a positive resolution.”

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