Search renewed for remains of 4 victims of 1973 gay bar fire

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nearly half a century after arson killed 32 people at a New Orleans gay bar, the City Council has renewed the search for the remains of four victims, including three who have never been identified.

The UpStairs lounge burned down on June 24, 1973, killing 31 men, including two whose mothers died with them, and injuring another woman and 14 men.

Ferris LeBlanc, 50, a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and three unidentified burnt bodies were buried next to each other in the town’s unmarked “potter’s field.”

The motion passed Thursday directs the city attorney, the director of property management and the general manager to provide “all reasonable assistance” to recover the remains.

“The city’s callous and deeply inadequate response…rooted in pervasive anti-gay sentiment” has compounded the suffering of the families and friends of the victims, states the motion drafted by councilman JP Morrell.

And, he wrote, “poor record keeping and indifference continue to hamper the efforts of surviving family members to recover the bodies of victims and give them the dignity of a proper burial.”

The council believes the city has a moral obligation to do everything in its power to assist “the recovery and dignified burial of the victims of the Upstairs Living Room Massacre,” the motion reads.

The council issued a formal apology for the city’s response on June 23, a day before the 49th anniversary of the fire.

“The board has promised to get to the bottom of this issue and do whatever it can to help us bring this story to an end,” LeBlanc’s family wrote in a statement to ABC News. “We are cautiously optimistic about this renewed interest and hope that it ends in a positive resolution.”

The fire was the largest gay massacre of the 20th century, the city council’s apology and Thursday’s motion noted. It was overtaken by the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

The location of LeBlanc’s body was noted as “Panel Q, Lot 32” of the cemetery, wrote Robert W. Fieseler in a book published in 2018.

But city officials said maps and other relevant documents were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ABC reported later that year. The network had released a 45th anniversary documentary about the fire and the efforts to find LeBlanc’s body.

Shortly after the documentary’s release, Mayor LaToya Cantrell appointed five staff members to help the family. But they dropped the case after months of unsuccessful searches, the network reported.

LeBlanc was estranged from his family in California — not because of his homosexuality but because he failed to pay the money owed to his grandfather, Fieseler wrote in “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation”.

Her body was identified after an anonymous caller told the coroner’s office that LeBlanc was wearing an antique ring made from a silver spoon, Fieseler wrote.

The other three were listed as Bodies 18, 23 and 28, and buried over a decade before DNA fingerprints were developed.

“Body 18, a white male over the age of eighteen, … had no identifying tattoos and burned over 70% of him,” Fieseler wrote. “Body 28, over 60% of its body charred, met its final resting place with pants and an undershirt still grafted to its skin. Body 23, 90% burned, was the most unrecognizable figure that had been removed from the ruins. All that is known is that he met death wearing brown shoes and black socks.

Johnny Townsend, who interviewed more than 30 fire survivors for a book he published in 2011, wrote that one survivor heard two firefighters talking while the fire was still roaring.

One was frustrated that he couldn’t reach the fire, Townsend wrote. The other replied, using a slur for gay people, “Let them burn.”

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Follow AP news on gay rights at https://apnews.com/hub/gay-rights.

By JANET McCONNAUGHEY
Associated press


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