NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nearly half a century after an arson attack killed 32 people at a New Orleans gay bar, the City Council has renewed its search for the remains of four victims, including three who have never been identified.
The UpStairs Lounge burned down on June 24, 1973, killing 31 men, including two whose mother died with them, and injuring another woman and 14 men.
Ferris LeBlanc, 50, a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and three bodies burned beyond identification were buried side by side in the unmarked “potter’s field” of the city.
The motion approved Thursday directs the city attorney, director of property management and managing director to provide “all reasonable assistance” in recovering the remains.
“The city’s callous and deeply inadequate response … rooted in widespread anti-gay sentiment” worsened the suffering of the families and friends of the victims, states the motion authored by Councilman JP Morrell.
And, he wrote, “Poor record-keeping and indifference continue to hamper surviving family members’ efforts to recover victims’ bodies and provide them with the dignity of a proper burial.”
The council believes the city has a moral obligation to do everything possible to assist in the “recovery and dignified burial of the victims of the UpStairs Lounge massacre,” the motion states.
The council issued a formal apology for the city’s response on June 23, one day before the 49th anniversary of the fire.
“The council has promised to get to the bottom of this issue and do everything they can to help us put an end to this story,” LeBlanc’s family wrote. in a statement to ABC News. “We are cautiously optimistic about this renewed interest and hope that it will end in a positive resolution.”
The fire was the largest mass murder of homosexuals in the 20th century, the City Council’s apology and Thursday’s motion note. He was overtaken by Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.
The location of LeBlanc’s body was noted as “Panel Q, Lot 32” of the cemetery, Robert W. Fieseler wrote in a book published in 2018.
But city officials said the maps and other relevant records were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. ABC reported later that year. The network had released a 45th anniversary documentary about the fire and the efforts to find LeBlanc’s body.
Shortly after the release of the documentary, Mayor LaToya Cantrell appointed five employees to help the family. But they dropped the matter after months of fruitless searching, the network reported.
LeBlanc was separated from his family in California, not because of his homosexuality but because he hadn’t paid his grandfather money he owed, Fieseler wrote in “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.” .
Her body was identified after an anonymous person told the coroner’s office that LeBlanc was wearing an antique ring made from a silver spoon, Fieseler wrote.
The other three were listed as bodies 18, 23 and 28, and were buried more than a decade before DNA fingerprinting was developed.
“Body 18, a white male over the age of eighteen, … had no identifying tattoos and was over 70 percent burned,” Fieseler wrote. “Body 28, with more than 60 percent of his body charred from him, found his final resting place with pants and a T-shirt still grafted onto his skin. Body 23, 90 percent burned, was the most unrecognizable figure to have been pulled from the ruins. All that is known is that he met his end wearing brown shoes and black socks.”
Johnny Townsend, who interviewed more than 30 people who survived the fire for a book he published in 2011, wrote that one survivor heard two firefighters talking while the fire was still raging.
One was frustrated that he couldn’t get close to the fire, Townsend wrote. The other replied, using an insult for homosexuals: “Let them burn.”
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