Contributed by Robert Jones (Louisiana State University, Alexandria ’19)
“It was 45 years ago this month that a man bought a can of Ronsonol lighter fluid at a Walgreens on Canal Street, walked to the Up Stairs Lounge, emptied its contents on the stairs and struck a match. Within minutes, the bar was engulfed in flames and choking smoke. Ceiling tiles and fabric melted and stuck like napalm to the skins of the people inside. With the entrance blocked and the windows barred, an emergency exit hidden and a fire escape with no stairs, patrons were trapped.
“Though the blaze was controlled in 17 minutes, firefighters found the room a crematorium with 28 bodies inside — ‘stacked like pancakes,’ in the words of The States-Item the next morning. Four more people died from injuries in the days afterward. (Had bartender Buddy Rasmussen not led 15 to 20 people out the hidden emergency exit, the death toll would have been higher.) The bodies were burned so badly that positive identification was impossible; New Orleans Police Department officers relied on scraps of identification. One of them, Maj. Henry Morris, cautioned, ‘We don’t even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this is a queer bar.’
“‘The fire came quickly and it was snuffed out quickly,’ wrote Lanny Thomas in The States-Item. ‘But the holocaust is one of the worst this city has seen.’ The Times-Picayune’s headline compared the scene to ‘DANTE’S INFERNO, HITLER’S INCINERATORS.'” [. . .] –Kevin Allman, The Advocate, June 11, 2018.
“Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina. He would find anger and pathos. A dark fable, perhaps. His villains would be evil and incompetent, even without Heckuva-Job-Brownie. In the end, though, he would not be able to constrain himself; his outrage might overwhelm the tale. . .
But within a week, the sense of menace and edgy despair becomes overwhelming. Now Zeitoun’s days are like a watery version of Dante’s Inferno, with flood and disease and tough moral choices around every bend: rescue or paddle on?” [. . .] —
Timothy Egan, The New York Times, August 13, 2009