Upstairs Lounge Fire, 1973: 32 Deaths

Stop 2 of 5 in the Upstairs Lounge Fire tour

On June 24, 1973, the Metropolitan Community Church had just finished a worship service and was hosting a social event with free beer and food for about 125 men and women. Later in the evening, the crowd had dwindled down to about 60, almost all of whom were dedicated members of the church. Around 8:00 pm, the buzzer at the door — the only entrance to the Upstairs Lounge — rang. When the door was buzzed open from the upstairs bar, someone doused the wooden staircase with lighter fluid and then threw a lighted torch into the stairwell. The flames rushed into the Lounge very quickly, and the entire bar was on fire within minutes.

Building owner Jimmy Massacci and his father, the previous owner, both witnessed the fire and its aftermath. Massacci believes that the arsonist was a regular at the bar because he was familiar with the door buzzer system used by patrons. He claims that since the door on Iberville Street “was kept locked, whoever did it had to be a regular and had to know the routine.”

According to Stewart Butler, “Because of the materials that covered the walls of the stairwell and the upstairs, it went up like a fireball very, very quickly. Buddy Rasmussen, who was the bartender that night, knew that there was a fire escape in [a back] room [and] called for people to follow him. Undoubtedly some didn’t hear him, and by then some were already enveloped in flames. He managed to get out quite a number; I don’t know how many.”

One of the tragedies of the Upstairs Lounge fire is that if the building had been outfitted with proper fire safety measures, most of the congregation would have survived. The single emergency exit was not marked, however, and bars covered the windows.

Butler remembers, “I walked around and I was just absolutely horrified, mortified, in total shock at what was going on, because some of the patrons were trying to get out of the windows, notwithstanding the bars. Actually, I understand one person did manage to squeeze out between the bars and get out that way, but there were others who were totally burned to death up against the bars trying to get out.”

Massacci now operates the Jimani Bar on the first floor of the building. The former site of the Upstairs Lounge is used as a storage space.