Toll of Eight Lives in 9th Ward Fire is Highest in New Orleans in Decades

Published: Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 8:05 PM Updated: Wednesday, December 29, 2010, 6:52 AM

By Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune

New Orleans’ deadliest blaze in decades took the lives of eight squatters who were trying to keep warm by huddling around an open fire in an abandoned 9th Ward building on one of the coldest nights of the year.

Authorities said the death toll in the fire was the largest since the Upstairs Lounge fire in June 1973, when 32 people died in a second-story bar in the French Quarter.

The Orleans Parish coroner’s office had yet to identify the victims, five men and three women, by Tuesday evening. Chief investigator John Gagliano said the agency had some “good leads” and will obtain the help of a dentist to assist with identifications, as the bodies were badly burned. Most of the people who died did not live permanently in New Orleans, he said.

A survivor of the blaze told firefighters that the people staying in the building were squatters, most of them in their teens and early 20s. Mourners who showed up at the charred remains of the building throughout the day said the group included people who called New Orleans home and others who were just passing through the city.

Teresa Reiger, the pastor at St. Luke’s Assembly of God on Franklin Avenue, said some of the people who regularly slept at the warehouse building took showers and grabbed occasional meals at her church. They were people drawn to New Orleans, who loved the music and vitality of the city, she said.

Several people who came by the building said the people who stayed at the warehouse had participated in a second-line parade Monday night for Jonathan Hall, who was murdered last Thursday inside a house on St. Roch Avenue.

Firefighters were called to the two-alarm blaze at the corner of St. Ferdinand and North Prieur streets about 1:55 a.m. Tuesday. The fire was under control by 2:33 a.m. Along with the eight people who died, two dogs also perished in the fire.

Fire Department spokesman Greg Davis said companies arrived within five minutes to find the abandoned tin warehouse structure on the property fully engulfed in flames and partially collapsed. The building had no utilities.

Two squatters on the scene told firefighters they narrowly escaped. They said they had been burning trash and other materials in a large barrel to keep warm in the freezing temperatures, which hovered around 32 degrees overnight in New Orleans.

The warehouse, sandwiched between St. Ferdinand Street and the railroad tracks, was located in a corner of the upper 9th Ward that has been partially rebuilt since Hurricane Katrina. While some homes are occupied, adorned with Christmas decorations, others have been left abandoned.

Mike Miller, an outreach worker with UNITY of Greater New Orleans, said he’s been to the warehouse three or four times since the group two years ago began to reach out to people living in abandoned buildings.

The residents were what Miller called “transient youths,” which is a different demographic than the typical homeless population of older and disabled people UNITY workers find living in New Orleans’ many blighted properties around the city. Still, Miller said the fire “is an example of the dangers of homelessness in abandoned buildings.”

State Fire Marshal Butch Browning, who spent much of the day at the scene of the fire, agreed with that assessment, saying that people should alert authorities when they see people squatting.

“If people know that people are staying in vacant buildings with no power and no minimum safety standards, they need to report it,” Browning said. “They can report to the local building official, or they can report to the fire marshal’s office.”

Miller said that along with finding more housing options for low-income New Orleanians, the city should find ways to provide shelter when needed for young people who stay in the city for periods of time, he said. Other cities often provide shelters or resources tailored to different homeless demographics, Miller said.

“We need to find resources so that people can stay alive,” he said.

Across the street from the building on Tuesday afternoon, three women set up a memorial altar, including a photograph of a baby they said was the child of one of the victims. The women, who came to New Orleans together about a month ago, said they had each stayed in the warehouse from time to time.

“They were all amazing, beautiful, accomplished people,” said Audrey Bean. The warehouse had been turned into a home, with beds and places to cook food, said her friend, Gwendolyn Faye, 19.

Bean, 19, and Rachel Park, 27, chafed at the New Orleans shorthand of “gutter punks,” often applied to young people with tattoos and piercings who drift into the city and panhandle in the French Quarter or other tourist areas. Park said the people who died were artists, welders or musicians. Some had plans to start a bicycle collective and open up a do-it-yourself bike shop.

A better term to describe the people who lived there would be “travelers,” Bean said, noting that many ride the freight rails.

Several people who stopped by the scene said they believed their friend Samuel “Sammy” Thompson, a New Orleans resident, perished in the fire. The coroner’s office could not confirm that Thompson was one of the victims.

Thompson was one of many people who had been out at the second-line, which ended at the St. Roch Tavern. He was known for building bicycles, as well as delivering food for the bar.

“Sammy always had a hug for me,” said Martha Wood, a bartender at the tavern. “I didn’t ever see a time when he didn’t say how much he loved me. He was that way with everyone.”

Bill Salmeron with the American Red Cross Southeast Louisiana Chapter said the warehouse fire was one of six fires across the metropolitan area that his organization responded to within a 24-hour period, including two other fires of vacant properties in New Orleans. The Red Cross provided emergency assistance to two of the survivors of the North Prieur Street blaze, he said.

The Orleans Parish assessors’ website shows the property where the blaze occurred is owned by Alfred J. Schorling. Phone messages left for Schorling on Tuesday were not returned.

Staff writers Danny Monteverde and Gordon Russell and contributing writer Sean David Hobbs contributed to this article. Laura Maggi can be reached at lmaggi@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3316.

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