Words: Will Stroude
On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a vibrant gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.
The bar was filled with members of the pro-LGBT Metropolitan Community Church - the first gay church founded in the US - who had met to discuss a fundraiser for the local children's hospital.
In the sixteen harrowing minutes that followed, 28 people lost their lives. Three would die later in hospital.
The loss of 32 lives at Up Stairs Lounge was, until the tragic events at Pulse nightclub in Orlando 43 years later, the single most deadly attack on LGBT people in US history.
Patrons at Up Stairs Lounge (Image: Johnny Townsend)
The primary suspect, a man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier in the evening following an altercation, was never charged with the crime. He took his own life just 18 months later, in November 1974.
While no-one could have forseen the tragedy at Up Stairs, the reaction from mainstream US society, politicans and religious leaders was one of silence: Newspaper reports downplayed that most of the victims were LGBT; no government officials publicly commented on the tragedy, and no public days of mourning were declared, as was commonly the case with other mass tragedies in the city.
The bodies of some victims went unclaimed by their own families. Some churches refused to hold funeral services for the dead. A reverend who agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims was bombarded with hate mail after his small act of kindness was publicy rebuked by the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans.
Firefighters tackle the deadly blaze at Up Stairs Lounge (Image: 'Upstairs Inferno')
At a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, traumatised survivors had only each to turn to other for support.
More than forty years since the tragey, some bravely shared their stories for an unflinching 2015 documentary, Upstairs Inferno, which is now available to stream in the UK on Amazon Prime.
Directed by Robert L. Camina, the award-winning film sees survivors, witnesses and friends share their own stories and those of the people who lost their, as they reflect on one of the deadliest tragedies in LGBT history.
Survivor Francis Dufrene (r) shares his story in 'Upstairs Inferno'. Left: pictured with injuries in the aftermath of the fire (Image: Francis Dufrene)
"While Upstairs Inferno recounts a historic event that occurred in the US, its underlying message crosses cultural boundaries", says Camina.
"We made the film hoping audiences would walk away from it with a renewed call for compassion: Compassion for those unlike us. Compassion for those who are hurting. Compassion for those in need. Because there definitely wasn't a lot of compassion when the deadly arson occurred."
He goes on: "Over five years ago, when I decided to tell this long overdue story, I didn’t want to make a film that was simply a stagnant exposition of facts. I wanted to humanize the story and put faces on the tragedy.
Ferris LeBlanc, one of the unclaimed victims of the Up Stairs Lounge attack. (Image: Camina Entertainment)
"I wanted to honor the victims and all those impacted by the tragedy, giving them the respect and dignity they were denied so many years ago."
He adds: "I’m grateful that Upstairs Inferno is now accessible in the UK and around the world via streaming platforms, because the victims, their loved ones and their stories should never be forgotten again."
Upstairs Inferno is available to stream on Amazon Prime in the UK and US now. You can watch the trailer below (warning: contains graphic images and scenes of a disturbing nature - viewer discretion advised):