The Horror Upstairs

The largest known massacre of gay people in U.S. history remains unsolved and little understood

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Jack Thornell / AP

This is a view inside the UpStairs bar following a flash fire that left 29 dead and 15 injured, June 25, 1973. Most of the victims were found near the windows in the background. The bar is located in the New Orleans French Quarter.

Francis Dufrene lived for Sunday nights. tall and lean with a pile of blond hair, the 21-year-old would take two buses from his home in the New Orleans suburbs to make it to the Upstairs Lounge by 5 p.m., when the French Quarter bar held its weekly beer bust--two hours of all-you-can-drink drafts for $1.

From the outside, the Upstairs didn't look much different from the other gay bars on a particularly seedy stretch of Iberville Street. But up 13 steps on the second floor was a refuge: three adjoining rooms, decorated with red wallpaper and frilly curtains, where people could laugh, love, even worship without fear. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a national Christian denomination founded to serve gays and lesbians, often held services in the bar's back-room theater. At other times the space was used for the elaborately costumed drag cabaret performances that regulars called "nelly dramas." "It was my safe haven," says Dufrene.

The beer bust on June 24, 1973, was typically festive. A pianist from the nearby Marriott played Broadway and ragtime tunes as patrons sang along. Dufrene was there, as usual, this time on a first date with Eddie Hosea Warren, a "husky country boy" he met at a hamburger joint near the Upstairs. Warren's brother James and mother Inez came with him. Duane George Mitchell, an associate pastor at the MCC known for his Queen Victoria impersonation, and his partner Louis Horace Broussard stopped by after dropping Mitchell's sons off at a movie. The bust prices ended at 7, but at least 65 people were still hanging around nearly an hour later when the door buzzer went off. It kept ringing, even though no one had ordered a taxi. The bartender sent a regular to check it out. When he opened the door, a fireball burst through as if shot from a flamethrower.

An updraft sucked the fire in, and within seconds the walls were aflame. Panic erupted inside. The bartender, Douglas "Buddy" Rasmussen, called for people to follow him and led at least 20 of them to safety through a back exit and onto adjoining rooftops--before closing the door behind them when he didn't see anyone else coming to prevent the fire from spreading. Many raced to jump out of the three large windows that were covered by metal bars. Dufrene was one of the few who squeezed through, body on fire.

"The small people seemed to get through the window, but the bigger people just couldn't get out," a survivor told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

One of those trapped was the MCC's pastor, Bill Larson, who struggled to push an air-conditioning unit through the window to escape. His head, torso and one arm made it halfway out before the glass pane above collapsed, trapping his body. In the street below, his friends heard him scream, "Oh, God, no!" as flames consumed him. His body was left in the window for hours, with his watch, stopped at a few minutes after 8, a haunting relic.

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