June 24, 1973 seemed like any other night at the Upstairs Lounge. The Metropolitan Community Church had just finished a worship service and was hosting a social event with free beer and food for about 125 people. As the night went on, this number dwindled to about 60, almost all remaining people being dedicated members of the church. Around 8:00 pm, the buzzer rang at the only entrance to the Upstairs Lounge. 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.
Jimmy Massacci, owner of the building, and his father, also a previous owner, both witnessed the fire. Massacci believes the arsonist was a regular at the bar, due to his familiarity with the door buzzer system used by the patrons. He stated 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.”
Had the Upstairs Lounge 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.