Royd Anderson grew up listening to his parents’ stories. He recalls watching the grisly news footage, repeated every year as a somber reminder by local TV stations.
Like many others in New Orleans, he’s been plagued by it for a long time.
As we near the 50th anniversary of that dark day on November 29, it’s only fitting that Anderson — a middle school history teacher in Louisiana and part-time filmmaker specializing in documentaries about New Orleans disasters — turned his lens on the Deadly sets fire to the Rault Center in 1972.
Part as a tribute to those who died that day, part as a reminder of the horrors that unfolded before a shocked city, Anderson’s film – simply titled “The Rault Center Fire” – is his attempt to secure the next generation of New Orleans residents remember such an important part of the city’s history in the 20th century.
“I teach history, and the Rault Center isn’t in the curriculum,” Anderson said. “So I felt it was important to do it as a filmmaker. I’m passionate about Louisiana history, and when you go through the syllabus and find that certain things aren’t mentioned, it bothers you.”
The resulting 43-minute film will be the subject of a number of local screenings over the coming weeks. That begins with a screening and discussion Tuesday (November 29) at 6:30 p.m. — the 50th anniversary of the fire — at the East Bank Regional Library of Jefferson Parish (4747 W. Napoleon Ave., Metairie).
Additional upcoming screenings are scheduled for November 30 at 6:00 p.m. at St. Charles Parish’s East Regional Library (160 W. Campus Drive, Destrehan); and 1:30 p.m. on December 3 at the Movie Poster Archives Gallery & Gifts (605 Lapalco Blvd., Gretna).
A shorter, 29-minute version of Anderson’s film will premiere November 29 at 6:00 p.m. on Yurview (Cox Channel 4), with additional airings planned for December.
Though it may all be new to younger viewers, longtime New Orleans residents no doubt remember the agony that unfolded on the afternoon of November 29, 1972.
On that day, what is believed to be the work of an arsonist broke out on the 16th floor of the once swanky 17-story building on the corner of Gravier Street and South Rampart Street.
With no automatic sprinkler system to put out the fire, it quickly spiraled out of control, engulfing the top three floors, including the Lamplighter Club, a meeting place on the 16th, and one floor below the Lamplighter Beauty Salon.
As smoke and flames poured from broken windows, New Orleans firefighters struggled to reach the blaze with their hoses. Below, a crowd of workers from the Central Business District watched. So did television cameras, sharing the horror not just with New Orleans viewers but with a national audience.
Then the unthinkable: the figures of five captured women emerged from a broken window on the 15th floor where the beauty salon was located. Flames blazed behind them.
With the firefighters’ ladders too short to reach them – and the TV cameras rolling – they began to jump up one by one and landed lifeless nine stories below on the roof of the neighboring six-story Travelers Building.
Three died instantly. One died weeks later in hospital. And remarkably, one of the women – Natalie Vrbaskovich Smith – survived to tell the story.
It is compelling what explains the fascination of so many New Orleans residents all these years later. As Anderson points out, it also led to positive changes in the world of firefighting, largely due 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 in office buildings became mandatory.”
Like Anderson’s five previous films – which relate to the 1976 Luling Ferry disaster, the 1977 Continental grain elevator explosion, the 1982 Pan Am Flight 759 crash, the 1973 Upstairs Lounge fire and the bus crash Focus on Mother’s Day from 1999 – “The Rault Center Fire” carries a no-frills, DIY feel. But what it lacks in production value it makes up for in keeping the story alive.
“The news is changing so fast right now and with social media there’s always a new topic, a new topic, and these tragedies are forgotten,” Anderson said when asked about his involvement with disasters. “Especially in the schools; There’s nothing in the curriculum about the Pan Am crash, the Rault Center fire. For people growing up in this area, these are part of the contemporary background of the city.”
Email Mike Scott at [email protected]