Initial newspaper reports left out any mention of homosexuality and delighted in grisly details about the fire workers “knee-deep in bodies… stacked up like pancakes” and “literally cooked together.” One paper quoted a cab driver who said, “I hope the fire burned their dresses off,” while radio talk-show hosts joked, “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” National television networks covered the fire for one night and never mentioned it again.
Four of the victims’ bodies were never identified; some thought their families were too embarrassed to come forward and claim them. (They were buried in paupers’ graves.) Of the city’s public officials not one made a statement about the fire and only one religious leader, Episcopalian Reverend William Richardson, held a memorial service.
Sometime during the investigation, police picked up a troubled hustler named Roger Nunez, who had been tossed from the Lounge earlier that day for starting a fight. There were allegations that, after being ejected, Nunez went to Walgreens, purchased lighter fluid, doused the stairs and then set the bar aflame. Nunez was questioned about the crime but went into convulsions and was taken to the hospital. While there, he escaped.
One year later, Nunez killed himself. Five days after, a friend told an investigator that Nunez had drunkly admitted several times that he had started the fire.
Though the main tragedy was the terrible loss of life that night, the city’s response further dishonored the victims by keeping their deaths unacknowledged.
In 1998, New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter lead a jazz funeral to the site of the blaze where mourners laid a memorial plaque at the foot of the building and placed flowers commemorating each of the 32 dead.
May God rest their souls.