Forty years ago on June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the UpStairs Lounge, a popular gay bar on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Streets. 32 people died in the blaze and no one was ever arrested or convicted for the crime.
The night of June 24, 1973 was a typical New Orleans summer evening -- hot and muggy.
Terry Gilbert, a 22-year-old rookie New Orleans firefighter just two weeks on the job, was waiting at the Central Fire Station with Arthur Lambert, then 32, and a couple of other NOFD responders when a call came in about a fire at a French Quarter bar.
The group clambered onto Engine 29 and headed toward the blaze, unaware that the inferno they were about to confront would claim the lives of 32 people and mark the city's deadliest fire in nearly two centuries.
The UpStairs Lounge, on the second floor of a three-story building on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Street, was just two blocks away, but the firefighters quickly became blocked by stalled vehicles and crowds of early evening revelers. Lambert tried to maneuver by steering the fire truck onto a sidewalk, but he hit a taxicab and sent it smashing into the glass window of a nearby furniture store.
"I stopped, but the deputy chief, he was behind me and he said, 'don't worry about the ... taxicab. Get to that fire,'" Lambert said.
Engine 29 was first to arrive at the scene. Gilbert and Lambert couldn't believe what they were seeing.
Flames shot from the building like "blowtorches" into the night, Lambert said. Men could be seen struggling hopelessly against the security bars on windows, escape impossible. People on the street screamed for help. A sickening smell hung in the air.
The fire was quickly brought under control, the firefighters said, but so much damage and misery had already been caused.
"It was horrible," Gilbert said. "These people, they were literally roasted alive. When your skin is exposed to open flames, you just melt, like candle-wax. It's horrific."
Gilbert, who had just returned from a tour in Vietnam, was almost in shock.
"I don't think anything could have prepared you for something like that," he said. "No one deserves to die like that."
Once they were able to get inside the charred lounge, a grisly task lay ahead for the firefighters and volunteers helping out at the scene. A pile of bodies lay heaped on the floor near the windows facing Chartres Street.
"The chief told me, 'I'm not gonna tell anybody that they have to do this, but there ain't none of us leaving until it's all done,'" Lambert recalled, adding that most of the men began pitching in just to hurry the process.
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