It was a dreadfully slow news day, even for a Sunday evening in June. Those of us who worked the weekend "nightside" shift at The Times-Picayune stared blankly at our typewriters between crossword puzzles and novels. Frank Martin, the weekend night city editor, tried to break the monotony at one point by shouting, "Come on! Make something happen! It's too damn slow tonight!"
We chuckled, then went back to our tedium.
Minutes later, Loys "Bugs" Bergeron, who monitored the police radios, came barreling into the newsroom shouting about a fire in the French Quarter. Martin dispatched all of us to the scene, the corner of Iberville and Chartres streets.
Back then — June 24, 1973 — every fire was a story, but French Quarter fires were big stories. The Quarter was then, as it is now, a tinderbox. There was no telling how big this fire might get.
I jumped into a photographer's car and we raced down Poydras Street toward Camp, running several stoplights and not giving the then-under-construction Superdome so much as a glance. Breaking news is an adrenaline rush, and my heart pounded as much at the thought of a front-page story as from the photographer's wild driving. We turned left on Camp and parked as close to Canal Street as we could, then ran toward the Quarter. The smell of soot already hung thick in the air as we crossed Canal.
I had seen death already, even though I had started my summer internship at the paper only six weeks before, at the age of 18. The nightside crew regularly chronicled shootings, stabbings, murders and more. On my third day at the paper I covered the drowning death of a 15-year-old who wandered too far into Audubon Park's flamingo pond. I'll never forget watching the coroner's office retrieve his body with a grappling hook. I remember thinking this kid was less than three years my junior.
In the five weeks since that drowning story, I had become inured to the sight of death, or so I thought. Truth is, nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered at the corner of Iberville and Chartres. The first hint of tragedy was droplets of blood on the sidewalk along Chartres Street, almost a block from the fire. As I approached the corner, what I saw stopped me cold. The street was packed with firefighters, media and gawkers — and a man with much of his flesh burned off and hanging from his limbs. He sat on the curb facing the fire, weeping, begging for help.
I had to turn away, at least momentarily. That's when I saw the bar atop the Jimani Restaurant, which I later learned was the Up Stairs Lounge, fully engulfed in flames and smoke — and a sight that haunts me to this day: a man pressed against the bars of a window, his hair and flesh nearly burned off, one arm hanging out through metal bars that had prevented his escape to safety. This time I could not turn away. I stared at him, wondering who would put bars on a second-story window, and who was this man whose final, desperate moments would capture in one horrific picture the tragedy that was the Up Stairs fire?
A senior reporter grabbed my arm and told me to go to Charity Hospital's emergency room. I was to write a "sidebar" story about the scene there. I don't remember how I got to Charity, and I don't remember exactly when I learned that the Up Stairs was "a bar frequented by homosexuals," as the media callously described it in those days. I do recall standing in the ER, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, knowing that most if not all the burn victims there were gay men.
Back then Charity was much more open than hospitals are today. No checkpoints. No one asking to see my credentials. I just walked into the ER and stood in a corner, scribbling observations into my notebook. The staff was far too busy trying to save lives to worry about a kid in the corner taking notes.
I had a front-row view of tragedy — and heroism. Nurses and doctors valiantly attended gurney after gurney, putting gauze and salve on the bodies of burned men who moaned in haunting tones. Some of them wept. I remember watching a nurse gently — or as gently as she knew how — peeling back the burned skin from a man before wrapping him as he pleaded for something to deaden his pain. Some of those who managed to get out of the bar showed up, offering information about their friends and inquiring about the status of others.
This scene replayed over and over before I realized I was the only reporter there. Then other media showed up, forcing the hospital staff to usher us out.
I stayed in the ER for about an hour, long enough to get a mental picture that I tried to put into words for a story. Back in the newsroom, I went straight to my typewriter, ignoring the protocol of first telling Martin, the city editor, what I planned to write. Moments later, he glanced over my shoulder at my first few paragraphs and put his hand on my shoulder. "That's what I want," he said. "Keep at it."
Then as now, the rush to get a big story into print (or on the air) forces reporters to detach from the emotional immediacy of the event itself. In most cases it's easy. When the story involves death, especially the death of a child or multiple deaths, not so much.
We politely call that detachment "objectivity," but it's really more a defense mechanism to numb the senses, a much milder version of what soldiers no doubt do in response to battle. If we get caught up in the humanity of a tragedy as we cover it, we can't do our job. I was just learning that skill set in June 1973, but I don't think I've ever been able to detach from the Up Stairs fire story.
Every time I smell the soot of a fire, for example, I think about the man I saw on the curb, crying in pain as his burned skin hung from his arms, or the man who was literally burned alive, pressed against the bars of the second-story window. Many years later I learned that the man in the window was the Rev. Bill Larson, the beloved pastor of the local Metropolitan Community Church, which ministered to the LGBT community.
It was also years later that I realized how profoundly the Up Stairs fire had affected the local gay community. Sadly, it did not take long to see the indifference — or even the hostility — that many New Orleanians showed toward that community in the immediate aftermath of the fire. That indifference, that hostility, belied the city's reputation for tolerance and hospitability.
That June night, I mostly felt an incomprehensible mixture of numbness and shock. After we put the paper to bed, we went out for drinks; we needed something to take the edge off the adrenaline. I needed something that would help me sleep, or at least help me not think about the things I had just seen.
I still felt that numbness and shock the next day, which was one of my days off. The fire that had killed 29 men the night before (and three more in the days that followed) was the talk of the town, and by then the national media had picked up the story. I went to my girlfriend's house, hoping to find a way past the numbness. She nervously asked me what it was like, but I couldn't find the words. I finally just hugged her and cried.