The Fires that Shaped New Orleans

06:03 November 11, 2015
By: Emily Hingle

In any major city, disaster can strike naturally, through negligence or through violence. The winding wooden buildings of the French Quarter have provided fodder for fire, and unchecked mental illness in a city where people may not recognize or care about how dangerous a person can be has led to disturbing tragedies. Recently, it was a failure of technology. Our city has been scarred by flames; we still bear the char marks of past centuries and should learn from them and their deadly consequences.

Our cramped quarters were made of wood, and we lit up our nights with candles and lanterns—a perfect mix for a devastating fire. The first extremely damaging fire the city encountered happened on March 21, 1788, which happened to be Good Friday. Albert Fossier describes the blaze in his book New Orleans: The Glamour Period, 1800–1840: “A fire caused by the negligence of a woman who thought of proving her devotion by making a small altar in her house. She left several candles burning around it and went off to take her dinner. During her absence, a candle fell on some ornaments which took fire and the house in an instant was in flames, which communicated to the adjoining house, and the wind which was strong at that time spread the fire to the balance of the city.” Fossier contends that more than 800 homes were destroyed, about 78% of the city at that time, but the “buoyant spirit of the colonists immediately made itself manifest for out of the smoldering embers of their former homes.” Just a few years later, the city was scarred again during the Second Great Fire, which occurred on December 8, 1794. Fossier continues, “This time, although causing great property loss and human suffering, it was not as devastating as the previous one.” More than 200 homes burned. 

For nearly 180 years, no major inferno occurred, until November 29, 1972. The Rault Center was the scene of a suspected arson. Johnny Townsend writes in his book Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire about fires that occurred just before the century's deadliest local blaze: “Dozens of people crowded on the roof as helicopters battled updrafts while trying to rescue the trapped people. Two men died of smoke inhalation. The most terrifying episode was captured on live television. Most of the city watched in horror as five women, trapped in a beauty parlor on the 16th floor, screamed for help from their window. The women tried to lower one of their group to the floor below, then watched as she slipped from their hands and fell to the concrete below. With their only alternative a fiery death, each followed the other woman out of the window, bouncing against the side of the building until crashing to the pavement with the others. [Natalie Smith] miraculously survived.” The cause of this fire remains unknown, but a similar arson just over a month later had the former building’s owner, Joseph Rault, Jr., claiming that it had to be the same perpetrator. On January 7, 1973, Mark Essex ended a week-long murder spree at Howard Johnson Hotel when he killed one couple in their room and set it on fire. Townsend writes, “The fire itself might have killed no one, but several people did die. Mark Essex was disturbed by the prejudice he received in the military. When firefighters arrived, he began shooting at them, too, eventually going to the roof and shooting more people in the street below. Fewer people remember this fire, but certain stories, such as the firefighter fleeing Essex by jumping into an elevator shaft, sliding down the cable and ripping the flesh from his fingers, remain clear.” Essex killed 9 people and wounded many. 

The worst was just around the bend: the deadliest fire in New Orleans to date. A gay club and church for homosexuals above the Jimani at Iberville and Chartres was the scene of a mass murder on June 24, 1973. Townsend writes, “The UpStairs Lounge had air-conditioning. That meant they had to keep the windows closed. The bar's previous owner had needed to install bars across the windows.” The lounge was accessible through a door one had to be buzzed through and then up a steep, narrow staircase. It was a deathtrap because of this single exit. While no one was ever charged with the crime, evidence points to the arsonist being Rodger Dale Nunez, a gay bar patron and troublemaker with a long history of criminal activity. He was thrown out of the bar for fighting and threatening people, walked to Walgreens some blocks away and purchased lighter fluid, returned an hour later and set the stairwell on fire, burning 32 people alive. He killed himself by ingesting chemicals on November 15, 1974. 

The city was then lucky to evade major fires until recent years, when the second and third deadliest fires occurred. December 28, 2010, was a cold night. Eight young people who came to New Orleans while train-hopping around the country sought warmth around a trashcan fire and inadvertently set the abandoned warehouse they were staying in on fire. Three of the travelers remain unidentified, but among the known victims, no one was over the age of 23. There was no warning system on November 11, 2014, when a fire that started just after midnight in a home in the Broadmoor neighborhood that did not have functioning fire alarms killed five of its occupants. The blaze may have been sparked by oxygen tanks that were kept downstairs in the bedroom of a smoker. The house was quickly engulfed in flames, making metal door and window hinges melt shut. The only survivor was the father of the family. A donation site garnered $20,000 from more than 300 donors to help with the costs of the funerals. 

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