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The search has resumed for the remains of 4 victims of the 1973 gay bar fire

NEW ORLEANS – Nearly half a century after an arson attack killed 32 people at a New Orleans gay bar, the city council has renewed the search for the remains of four victims, including three who have never been identified.

The UpStairs saloon burned on June 24, 1973, killing 31 men, including two whose mother died with them, and injuring another woman and 14 men.

Ferris LeBlanc, 50, a World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, and three bodies, burned without identification, were buried side by side in the town’s unmarked “potter’s field.”

The motion passed Thursday directs the city attorney, director of property management and chief administrative officer to provide “all reasonable assistance” to recover the remains.

The city’s “callous and grossly inadequate response … rooted in widespread anti-gay sentiment” has worsened the suffering for the victims’ families and friends, the motion, written by Councilman JP Morrell, said.

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And he wrote: “Poor record-keeping and indifference continue to hamper the efforts of surviving family members to recover the victims’ bodies and give them the dignity of a proper burial.”

The council believes the city has a moral obligation to do everything it can to assist in the “recovery and dignified burial of the victims of the UpStairs Lounge massacre,” the motion states.

The council issued a formal apology for the city’s response on June 23, one day before the 49th anniversary of the fire.

“The council promised to get to the bottom of this issue and do everything possible to help us end this story,” LeBlanc’s family wrote in a statement to ABC News. “We are cautiously optimistic about this renewed interest and hope it will result in a positive resolution.”

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The fire was the largest mass killing of gay people in the 20th century, the city council’s apology and Thursday’s motion noted. It was surpassed by the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

The location of LeBlanc’s body is marked as “Panel Q, Lot 32” in the cemetery, Robert W. Fisseler wrote in a book published in 2018.

But city officials said the maps and other related records were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ABC reported later that year. The network had released a 45th anniversary documentary about the fire and the efforts to find LeBlanc’s body.

Shortly after the documentary was released, Mayor LaToya Cantrell appointed five staff members to help the family. But they dropped the question after months of fruitless searching, the network said.

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LeBlanc was estranged from his family in California — not because of his homosexuality, but because he didn’t pay the money he owed his grandfather, Fieseler writes in Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation .

His body was identified after an anonymous caller told the medical examiner that LeBlanc was wearing an antique ring made from a silver spoon, Fieseler wrote.

The other three were listed as bodies 18, 23 and 28 and buried more than a decade before the development of DNA fingerprinting.

“Body 18, an over-eighteen-year-old white male, … had no identifiable tattoos and burns over 70 percent of him,” Fieseler wrote. “Body 28, over 60 percent of his body charred, found his final resting place with his pants and undershirt still attached to his skin. Body 23, 90 percent burned, was the most unrecognizable figure pulled from the rubble. All that is known is that he met his end with brown shoes and black socks.

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Johnny Townsend, who interviewed more than 30 survivors of the fire for a book he published in 2011, wrote that one survivor heard two firefighters talking while the fire was still raging.

One was disappointed that he could not rise to the flames, Townsend wrote. The other responded, using a gay slur, “Let them burn.”

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The search has resumed for the remains of 4 victims of the 1973 gay bar fire

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