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New Orleans renews search for missing remains of victims of notorious 1973 fire

Marilyn LeBlanc-Downey and her son, Skip Bailey, remember Ferris LeBlanc as a brother, uncle and father figure. - ABC News

(NEW ORLEANS) -- The New Orleans City Council is reviving an effort to locate the lost remains of several victims of an arson that killed 32 people at a popular French Quarter gay bar in 1973.

The fire at the UpStairs Lounge was the largest mass murder of LGBTQ citizens in United States history until the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016.

The council passed a motion on Thursday directing the city's property management and legal departments to "take any and all appropriate steps necessary" to "facilitate the recovery" of three unidentified fire victims and one identified victim, Ferris LeBlanc, who were buried in an unmarked graves somewhere in the city's potter's field.

LeBlanc, a World War II veteran, has yet to be located despite a years-long effort led by his family to find his remains and return them to California for a military burial.

"Poor record-keeping and indifference continue to hamper the efforts of surviving family members to reclaim the bodies of victims and to provide them the dignity of a proper burial," wrote Councilmember JP Morrell, whose office is spearheading the effort, in the motion. "The Council believes the City has a moral obligation to take all steps within its power to facilitate the recovery and dignified interment of the victims of the UpStairs Lounge massacre."

LeBlanc's family told ABC News that they are encouraged that the city's leaders are taking action on their behalf.

"The council has promised to get to the bottom of this issue and do everything they can to help us bring an end to this story," LeBlanc's family wrote in a statement. "We are cautiously optimistic for this renewed interest and are hopeful it will end in a positive resolution."

In 2018, five members of Mayor LaToya Cantrell's office were tasked with the search for LeBlanc's remains shortly after the release of an ABC News documentary investigating the city's response to the fire and highlighting pleas from LeBlanc's family -- including his sister Marilyn LeBlanc Downey -- for help.

But after several months of searching, officials were unable to locate his remains, telling ABC News they "remain stymied by lost or incomplete records," and the inquiry was quietly discontinued.

On the eve of the tragedy's 49th anniversary, however, as the New Orleans City Council issued a formal apology to the victims, survivors and families affected by the fire, Councilmember Morrell pledged to take up the search.

"The City of New Orleans' lack of response to the deadliest fire in our history has kept individuals from mourning their loved ones, but today we took a step in the right direction," Morrell said in a statement on June 23. "Moving forward, my office will be working with the family of Ferris LeBlanc, a WWII veteran who died in the fire, to exhume his remains and properly memorialize him with full military honors."

Survivors, family members, first responders, activists and journalists interviewed by ABC News agreed that the city's response to the tragedy exposed pervasive prejudices toward the gay community in the otherwise famously tolerant city, an attitude that resulted in, among other indignities, the burial of several unidentified victims in unmarked graves in the city's potter's field -- LeBlanc among them.

According to Robert Fieseler, author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, shock and sympathy were quickly replaced by ignorance and apathy when people learned "what kind of bar had burned down and who the victims had been."

"The deadliest fire in New Orleans history provoked not an outpouring of grief for the dead," Fieseler told ABC News, "but instead, among mainstream residents, humiliation for the release of the dead's secrets: their unconventional sexual tastes, at a time when the mere discussion of homosexuality was taboo."

It was the failure of the city's leaders and institutions to recognize and respond to the tragedy in 1973 that prompted a rare public statement of "historic regret" in 2022.

"The City Council deems it not only necessary but past due to formally apologize," reads the resolution, adopted unanimously last month, "for the way that those who perished were not adequately and publicly mourned as valuable and irreplaceable members of the community."

Local media hailed the move as a "small but significant step" in the healing process that acknowledged the city's "indifference, if not hostility, toward the gay community" at the time, the painful legacy of which lingers to this day.

"We will continue," LeBlanc's family wrote in a statement. "We all hope for the day when this story will end as it should."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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