I am a New Orleanian living in exile in Houston. My question has something to do with an event I remember vaguely from my childhood.
I seem to recall back in the mid-70s, when the city came to a standstill for a day because of a sniper in the Howard Johnson's Hotel across from City Hall. And I also seem to remember that it was particularly troublesome because the top floors of the old Rault Center had mysteriously caught fire shortly before. Therefore, the sniper held the high ground. Can you help clear up my memory and give me some details on this event?
I feel sorry for you so far away from home, and I wish you had asked me about a happier memory from your youth. However, I'll tell you some of what I know.
It's been almost 29 years since our city experienced two terrible tragedies. The first came on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 29, 1972, when fire swept through the top three floors of the 17-story Rault Center and six people died as a result. One of the victims succumbed to smoke inhalation, and others were killed when they either jumped or fell from the 15th floor of the office-apartment building at 1111 Gravier St.
There were also some who were injured, but most of the occupants escaped safely. Eight people were rescued from the top of the building by a brave helicopter pilot. By mid-afternoon, the roof had collapsed.
The firemen were hampered by the height of the building. Getting water up that high was difficult. At one point a fireman climbed a ladder to operate a hose, and he was forced down by exploding glass from the 16th floor.
While New Orleans has seen many devastating fires, especially in its early days, none quite equaled the scope of this fire up so high with so many people in the building.
The second tragic event came closely behind.
On the morning of Sunday, Jan. 7, 1973, Mark Essex, a 23-year-old Navy veteran from Emporia, Kansas, who had been court-martialed, drove a car into the parking garage of the Downtown Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge on Loyola Avenue -- now the Holiday Inn -- and began a shooting spree that would last almost 12 hours.
Armed with a rifle, Essex made his way into rooms on the upper floors where he shot several of the hotel guests. He also started at least eight fires in the hotel, usually by setting telephone books on fire and putting them under the window drapes.
As the fires spread, some of the guests stood on balconies. At the scene was assistant fire chief William McCrossen, who had been at the recent Rault Center tragedy and was calling out from a loudspeaker, "Do not jump. Stay where you are. We'll come and get you."
In the meantime, Essex had made his way to the roof of the building where he found a protective cubicle and began shooting at firemen trying to douse the fires and policemen trying to stop him.
All the while, police believed that there were at least three sniper-arsonists who were terrorizing the five-square-block area, and there were about a hundred policemen firing at them from the Rault Center. Mark Essex was killed when he was driven from the cubicle on the roof by a tracer round fired from the U. S. Marine Corps helicopter that hovered over the building. Shots from the helicopter and the Rault Center brought him down at 10 p.m.
Police still had reason to believe that there were still two snipers at large which resulted in a great deal of confusion, and firing at shadowy figures on the rooftop continued long after Essex was dead. New Orleans Superintendent of Police Clarence Giarrusso said at a press conference on Jan. 9 that he still believed that there were at least two snipers, and it may have been a conspiracy. But no other snipers were found.
Mark Essex had killed nine people -- five of them police officers -- and wounded 19 others, as well as causing over $1 million in damage.