MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today marks the 45th anniversary of a tragedy, an arson attack on a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Upstairs Lounge. It claimed the lives of 32 people. And you could be forgiven if you didn't know about it because, to be frank, it's been largely forgotten. But until the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the Upstairs Lounge fire was considered the deadliest assault on LGBTQ Americans, and it was the shooting that created a resurgence of interest in the Upstairs Lounge fire as people looked to history to try to make sense of the present.
A new book by Robert W. Fieseler tells the story. It's called "Tinderbox: The Untold Story Of The Upstairs Lounge Fire And The Rise Of Gay Liberation." It includes first-person accounts of the fire from survivors, including someone we're about to meet, Ricky Everett, who survived by following a bartender out the back entrance. It turned out to be the only escape route.
Now here's where we'd like to warn you. This story is graphic, and the language you're about to hear might not be appropriate for all listeners. And Ricky Everett joins us now from his home in Dallas.
Ricky Everett, thanks so much for speaking with us.
RICKY EVERETT: It's my pleasure.
MARTIN: And I do want to start by saying I'm so sorry for your loss. I know a close friend of yours died in the fire. And I wanted to know when these anniversaries arrive, you know, as they do every year - I mean, this is something that you've been living with for quite a long time - what does it mean to you?
EVERETT: Well, it just kind of jogs the old memories. And after 45 years, it's just - I've kind of gotten used to it. And of course, talking with a lot of people about it - it's been kind of like therapy for me, and it's helped me to come out of a lot of the grief.
MARTIN: Well, I'm glad to hear that - that it's helpful at least. Would you mind telling us a little bit about what happened that night?
EVERETT: OK. Well, we were at the Upstairs Lounge, and everybody was just really relaxing, having a great time, and people around the piano playing music and singing. And suddenly, like, a reddish-orange glow just came into the room, and that's when I realized fire, you know? And just - I mean, it just happened so quickly. The flames just shot straight across the whole length of the bar. There were a lot of people who were sitting at the bar who - that just engulfed in those flames. And I could even see - it was, like, indoor-outdoor carpeting on the floor, and the heat of it - it managed to make that carpeting rise up off the floor and (unintelligible).
About then, here comes Buddy Rasmussen. He was the bartender/manager. He leaped over the bar and yelled follow me. Follow me. When he got along side of me, he grabbed me by the arm because I was just sitting there like this can't be happening. So when we were going out, I had a friend from Atlanta - it was a boyfriend. He - I thought he was behind me. Well, I turned to look back, and he wasn't there. And I thought - I don't know what I thought.
But I just had to find him, so I ran back in. And there's so much flames everywhere that I couldn't see where I was going because I was just blinded by all these flames. I was just engulfed in the flames - circling all around me. But at that same time, I felt a physical manifestation, I guess you'd say. It was like somebody laid a blanket over the top of me from the head to toes. And all of a sudden, I just had total peace. And I knew it was God. So I just started walking. I don't know if it was just basic instinct of direction or what, but I just - I walked right out the door that I came back in through. And the friend and I was looking for was actually outside frantically looking for me.
MARTIN: There were some very gruesome pictures that, you know, surfaced later. And one of the things that people who've documented the event talked about is that, you know, the fire was horrible on its own, but then what came in later was horrible for other people. There was a feeling that the victims were not respected or that there were comments made, that there was a sense of the victims not being appropriately treated. Did you feel that way at the time?
EVERETT: Well, I was just really in shock for - I don't know how long - a couple of weeks. But yeah, they were - the people were saying all kinds of really terrible things like, oh, let the faggots burn, you know, or something about, oh, their dresses are going to be burning up - just stupid stuff. And there were a lot of things that was being said.
MARTIN: Mr. Everett, I have to ask. Nobody was ever prosecuted for this crime, but there is strong evidence that the person who deliberately set the fire was also a member of the LGBT community. I was wondering, you know, how do you process that?
EVERETT: Well, it could've been just anybody. It doesn't matter whether you're straight or gay. It's still the same impact. And as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Nunez, who admitted to doing it, eventually committed suicide. I forgave him a long time ago, and I hope other people do because it kind of helps to release it and just keep going on with life.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Mr. Everett, what would you want people to think about when they think about this day?
EVERETT: Well, naturally, I want them to remember the tragedy because it's important. I think it's opening up a big door of understanding. And so my part is I couldn't figure out why - why me? Why did God save me out of that? And at first, for a while, I was saying, God, thank you for saving me out of there. But next time, let me burn because of all the emotion that I was going through and the dreams and just seeing all that over and over and over again.
Then one day, I asked him, why? Why did you save me out of that? And he spoke into my spirit then and just said because I know you will go forth and tell people - LGBT people primarily but anybody, everybody - God loves us all so much. He's got a reason for everything, a purpose. And it's not for us to understand, I guess. But just be who we are. And so here I am. I'm here, a gay man, to tell everybody God loves me. I know he loves everybody else.
MARTIN: That is Ricky Everett. He is one of the survivors of the Upstairs Lounge fire, which took place in New Orleans 45 years ago today.
Ricky Everett, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
EVERETT: You're welcome. Thank you.
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