Former HHS teacher sheds light on tragic French Quarter arson

A former Hahnville High School teacher is shedding new light on a tragic French Quarter fire that led to the deaths of 32 people in 1973.

Royd Anderson’s documentary, “The Upstairs Lounge Fire,” delves into a fire at a gay nightclub that Anderson says is the worst mass murder of gays in U.S. history. The suspected arson occurred in the Upstairs Lounge in the second floor of a club at the corner of Iberville and Chartres streets.

The fire was intentionally set at the base of the lounge’s stairwell entrance on June 24. Anderson said an empty can of lighter fluid was found at the scene.

The fire occurred less than three blocks from the Central Fire Station and was brought under control in 16 minutes. However, 32 people died because they had little time to react and the bars on the windows prevented most of them from getting out of the club.

“There was a $1 pitcher of beer special that night too, so intoxication also played a big part,” Anderson said.

According to reports, a bartender was able to lead about 20 people to safety through a back door, but he locked the door after fleeing to stop the spread of the fire. Anderson said that unintentionally left the remaining bar patrons with no escape route.

Though no one was ever arrested for the crime, there was a prime suspect in the case. Rodger Nunez, 26, got into a fight with another bar patron that night and had his jaw broken in the scuffle. Before Nunez left the bar, he reportedly said that he would “burn them out.” The fire started shortly afterwards.

Nunez got married after the arson took place but committed suicide a little over a year after the fire.

Anderson said there wasn’t enough forensic evidence at the scene of the fire to make an arrest.

“One gentlemen claimed the prime suspect told him he was going to burn them out, but no one else can corroborate he said that,” Anderson said.

Anderson takes issue with what he calls the deplorable action of local politicians following the blaze.

“Gov. Edwin Edwards and New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu made no statement of public sympathy for the victims, which is noted in the documentary,” Anderson said. “They chose politics over what was right. Folks in 2013 are outraged in learning this.”

The only thing that commemorates the tragic fire is a small plaque on the sidewalk next to the building where it occurred.

Anderson specializes in documentary films pertaining to tragic Louisiana events he says are overlooked by historians. In 2006, Anderson wrote and directed the documentary “The Luling Ferry Disaster.” The film recounts the story of the worst ferry disaster in U.S. history when 77 people were killed in the MV George Prince ferry crash. The documentary was released on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy and the success of the film generated a movement, initiated by Anderson, to build a monument in St. Charles Parish for the victims and survivors.

In 2007, Anderson wrote and directed the documentary “The Continental Grain Elevator Explosion.” The film examines the deadliest grain dust explosion of the modern era, occurring on Dec. 22, 1977 at the Continental Grain plant in Westwego. Thirty-six people died in the accident. In 2012, he released a documentary about the Pan Am Flight 759 plane crash in Kenner that killed 153 people.

“History is chronicled through wars, tragedies, plaques, etc. Louisiana unfortunately has so many tragedies that have not been analyzed in a documentary format,” Anderson said. “There are many contemporary tragedies that aren’t covered in Louisiana history textbooks. It is mandatory for me to make these films to preserve history, first-hand, through interviews with those who were there.”

Anderson said his love of storytelling comes from his father.

“My dad is very knowledgeable about Louisiana history and he is a great storyteller,” Anderson said. “When I was a boy, he told my brothers and I stories about these tragedies. When I went to college, I wanted to study them further.”

The documentary, “The Upstairs Lounge Fire” airs on Cox Cable Channel 4 on the following dates: June 24 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.; June 25 at 1 p.m. and June 27 at 6 p.m.

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