Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - Even now, four decades later, the tragedy that unfolded Jan. 7, 1973, at the Downtown Howard Johnson's hotel is shrouded in mystery and vivid, often painful, memories of that Sunday morning.
That’s when a sniper named Mark Essex terrified the city and held New Orleans police at bay, firing shots and taking nearly a dozen lives, in a rampage fueled by racism and hatred unlike anything the city had seen before.
It was actually the firefighters who were first on the scene, just after 10 a.m.
“It started as a fire,” remembers Channel 4 photographer Willie Wilson Jr., who was there as a young newsman. “When the fire department got there, there was a sniper in the building, on top of the roof, shooting at the fireman climbing on the ladder.”
That firefighter was 29-year-old Lt. Tim Ursin, who was trying to rescue people from the hotel when the gunman’s bullet pierced through him, causing him to lose part of his arm as a result.
He recalls that his first thoughts when he heard about the fire at the Howard Johnson’s flashed back a few weeks, to Nov. 29, 1972, and the tragic fire at the Rault Center, just a block away, near Loyola Avenue & Gravier Street.
“But we didn’t know what the situation was when we walked into it,” Ursin said in an interview last week.
Recalling the moment he was shot, Ursin said he didn’t see the gunman or even realize he had been hit.
“It didn’t even seem real. I heard the boom, I looked up, I thought somebody had dropped a cherry bomb in front of me.”
Ursin said the magnitude of it all didn’t hit him until the following day when he woke up in Charity Hospital with three other wounded policemen in hospital beds nearby.
After Ursin was hit, the gunfire would only grow, with first responders and even hotel guests and workers as targets. It turned out Essex had already claimed several lives inside the hotel.
One of the sniper’s later victims was Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo, police Superintendent Clarence Giarrusso’s number two man. Sirgo would lead a rescue attempt with other officers, hoping to save an officer trapped inside of an elevator.
Retired Capt. Jules Killelea, Sirgo’s administrative assistant, was with his boss and three other policemen.
“We were going very slow, taking our time,” he said in an interview last week. “It was total darkness, all the lights were out in the building.”
Killelea said that details of what exactly was unfolding were hard to come by, but it was clear that fires had been set inside the hotel, an armed man, or possibly several armed suspects, were inside and firing shots.
As Sirgo and the team of officers with him walked farther up the stairs, a shot came from above. The deputy chief was hit.
“There was a tremendously loud shot. He immediately fell back on to me,” Killelea said.
“I took my shotgun, and pumped three rounds up the stairwell in the direction I thought it came from,” Killelea said.
“As Chief Sirgo fell back on me, he said, ‘Jesus, I'm dying. Jesus, I'm dying,’ and that's the last thing I heard from him,” Killelea said.
Sirgo’s family, including his widow Joyce, remembers the day vividly. His daughter Lisa, who was then 15 years old, remembers taking the call ordering her father to the scene. Then later, the word would come from television news reports, that the worst had happened.
“It was just shock, and then that whole day was just…our house was just filled with our family and friends. Archbishop Hannan even came to our house that day,” she said.
In all, the violence claimed 5 police officers’ lives, including three that day: Sirgo and Patrolmen Paul Persigo and Philip Coleman, both shot in the head. Two other officers, K-9 Officer Edwin Hosli Sr. and Cadet Alfred Harrell were killed in separate incidents on New Year’s Eve 1972, which were later linked to Essex.
Twelve other people were also wounded at the Howard Johnson’s on Jan. 7.
It would take a military helicopter, and sharpshooters inside the aircraft and on nearby buildings, including former police deputy chief Antoine Saacks, to finally bring Essex down – riddling his body with some 200 bullets, according to an autopsy.
Essex, who was originally from Kansas and served in the Navy, was associated with members of the Black Panther Party and said he was a victim of white racism during his military service. After his death, a search of his apartment revealed his walls were covered with graffiti, along with the words “hate” and kill.”
The NOPD report on the investigation concludes by saying “What he intended to achieve will probably remain in the grave with him.”
Tonight at 6 p.m., Angela Hill has more on the 40th anniversary, including an interview with retired Fire Lt. Tim Ursin, Deputy Chief Sirgo’s wife and daughter, and retired Capt. Jules Killelea.