Royd Anderson grew up hearing the stories of his parents. He remembers seeing the gruesome news footage, which was rebroadcast every year by local television stations as a grim reminder.
Like much of the rest of New Orleans, it too has long been haunted by it.
And so, as we approach the 50th anniversary of that dark day of Nov. 29, it’s only fitting that Anderson — a Louisiana college history professor and part-time filmmaker who specializes in documentaries chronicling disasters of New Orleans – focuses its lens on the deadly Rault Center fire of 1972.
Made in part as a tribute to those who died that day and in part as a reminder of the horrors that unfolded before a shocked city, Anderson’s film – titled simply “The Rault Center Fire” – is his effort to ensure that the next generation of New Orleans residents do not forget such an important part of the city’s 20th century history.
“I teach history, and the Rault Center is not in the curriculum,” Anderson said. “So I thought it was important to do that as a filmmaker. Louisiana history is something I’m passionate about, and when you go through the program and notice that some things aren’t mentioned, it bothers you.
The resulting 43-minute film will be the subject of several local screenings in the coming weeks. It begins with a screening and discussion at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday (Nov. 29) — the 50th anniversary of the fire — at the East Bank Regional Library in Jefferson Parish (4747 W. Napoleon Ave., Metairie).
Other upcoming screenings are scheduled for Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. at St. Charles Parish East Regional Library (160 W. Campus Drive, Destrehan); and 1:30 p.m. on December 3 at Movie Poster Archives Gallery & Gifts (605 Lapalco Blvd., Gretna).
A shorter 29-minute version of Anderson’s film will premiere on Yurview (Cox Channel 4) at 6 p.m. on November 29, with additional airings scheduled throughout December.
While all of this may be new to young viewers, longtime New Orleans residents no doubt remember the angst that unfolded on the afternoon of November 29, 1972.
This is the day a fire, believed to be the work of an arsonist, broke out on the 16th floor of the posh 17-story old building on the corner of Gravier and South Rampart streets.
Without a sprinkler system to put out the fire, it quickly spiraled out of control, engulfing the top three floors, including the Lamplighter Club, a 16th-floor gathering place for oil and gas industry movers and shakers; and, one floor below, the Lamplighter beauty salon.
As smoke and flames poured from the shattered windows, New Orleans firefighters struggled to reach the blaze with their hoses. Below, a crowd of central business district employees watched. So would the television cameras, which would share the horror not just with New Orleans viewers, but with a nationwide audience.
Then, the unthinkable: the silhouettes of five trapped women appeared in a shattered window on the 15th floor, where the beauty salon was located. Behind them, flames roared.
With the firefighters’ ladders too short to reach them – and the television cameras spinning – they began to jump one by one, landing lifeless nine floors below on the roof of the neighboring six-storey travelers’ building.
Three died instantly. One of them died weeks later in hospital. And, remarkably, one of the women – Natalie Vrbaskovich Smith – survived to tell the tale.
It’s fascinating, which explains the fascination so many New Orleans residents have with her all these years later. As Anderson points out, it also led to positive changes in the world of fire suppression, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of legendary New Orleans Fire Chief William McCrossen.
“While very tragic, it has made the world a safer place,” Anderson said. “After the Rault Center, sprinkler systems became mandatory in office buildings.”
Like Anderson’s five previous films – which focus on the 1976 Luling ferry disaster, the 1977 Continental grain elevator explosion, the 1982 Pan-Am Flight 759 crash, the from the upstairs living room in 1973 and the Mother’s Day bus crash in 1999 — “The Rault Center Fire” carries a no-frills, DIY feel. But what it lacks in production value it makes up for by keeping the story alive.
“News is changing so fast right now, and with social media there’s always a new topic, a new topic, and these tragedies get forgotten,” Anderson said when asked about his concern for the disasters. “Especially in schools; there is nothing in the program about the Pan-Am crash, the Rault Center Fire. For people growing up in this area, it is part of the contemporary context of the city.
Email Mike Scott at [email protected]
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