Journal of photographer Brian Lukas: 40th anniversary of Howard Johnson's sniper

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wwltv.com

Posted on January 7, 2013 at 9:49 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 7:07 AM

WWL-TV photographer Brian Lukas covered the Howard Johnson's sniper incident on Jan. 7, 1973, while working for another local television station. Here is his journal entry from that time, as well as his reflections on the tragedy.


"Unless you visit a battlefield, how can you write about a battle? A writer must visit the battlefield to write about a battle.¨ Historian Stephen Ambrose

Several years ago the public information officer for the NOPD was examining the eternal flame in front of the plaza at police headquarters near Tulane and Broad. He was concerned that a strong gust of wind could extinguish the flame. In polite conversation he explained why they added the eternal flame to the police monument and that the plaza was named for Deputy Police Chief Louis Sirgo, killed in the Howard Johnson´s sniper incident. I mentioned that I had met the chief and that I had covered the tragic event that took his life. ¨Really!¨ the officer remarked, surprised by my statement. ¨How was it?¨ he asked. Without going into detail and bringing back too many memories of that time I responded by simply saying , ¨It was bad....it was a very bad day for the City of New Orleans

Four decades ago: It was a little after 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, January 7,1973, when I received a call from the weekend assignment editor. There was an urgency in his tone - a voice level that seemed almost frantic. He was trying to call the news staff to the station. These were the days before beepers and cell phones. It was an analog world - clickability referred to a camera's shutter release. As a young student at the University of New Orleans, I just happened to be home preparing for the upcoming semester. The editor mentioned that there was a hotel fire downtown and some shots were fired....would I be able to come in immediately. I did, and as soon as I entered the newsroom, I heard the frantic chatter on the police radios. As far as we could determine, there was a fire at the Downtown Howard Johnson´s and some people had been shot. Few details were available - it was a confusing situation. But just then, the police transmission reported someone in the hotel was shooting firemen and police....the word "sniper" bristled in the transmissions. In the newsroom the editor was only able to reach three of our staff....it was still early and it was a Sunday. We knew we needed to get out to the scene so I teamed-up with another photographer. The other staff member hearing the frantic police radio chatter decided it was best to stay in the newsroom to answer phone calls.

These were the days of film and film cameras. We carried five magazines of Kodak 400 asa film stock. Each film magazine lasted 12 minutes. Our camera was a large Auricon film camera with a sound amplifier. We also used a smaller Bell and Howell silent camera with a multiple turret style lense. The silent camera shot 100ft. rolls of film lasting only 3 minutes per roll. We were loaded down with equipment and film and had to move fast.

Leaving the television station, we hugged the buildings and slid behind cars. From the distance I could hear the constant crack of gunfire. In what seemed like hours, but mere minutes, we found ourselves to the right of the New Orleans Public Library and in front of the Howard Johnson´s Hotel. Fires were flaring out of the top floors of the hotel. On the balconies overlooking Loyola Avenue, people were holding towels over their face. There was a lot of smoke. This was a bad situation. It immediately brought back the recent memories of the Rault Center fire just two months before. There I had witnessed the flames whip through the top stories of that high rise forcing several women to jump to their deaths. It was terrible and sad images to recount, with the fires blazing at the Howard Johnsons. The charred top floors of the Rault Center were visible in the distance as I began to film the fires pouring out of the Howard Johnson´s hotel.  To the right of us a group of police officers gathered. One officer was on the ground covered by another police officer, while others aimed rifles to the top of the hotel. The situation was so confusing...a lot of police moving around positioning themselves behind cars and trees. That´s when I realized we were in the middle of this battle. The sniper shot the police officer near us and the other officers were trying to protect him. We maneuvered ourselves closer to the hotel behind a large green car. Staying down - we would raise the lens a few seconds to film then crouch down again...never raising the lens in the same place.

There was a lot of gunfire...the whizzing sounds of bullets passing nearby is nerve racking. I heard a loud boom hitting the car we took shelter behind. I thought for sure we were targeted, but as I slowly turned around, it was a photographer from the morning newspaper - G.E. Arnold - an extraordinary photographer of the time. Arnold was hedge hopping between cars to get a better shot of the unfolding situation just as we had done. He slammed into the vehicle, taking care not to damage the two Hasselblad cameras he had slinging around his neck. With his short cropped hair and Buddy Holly glasses, he smiled and said, ¨How is it going?¨ His confident smile relieved a little of the tension. Arnold arrived on the scene earlier and related the dire situation to us. It was much worse than I expected.

Firemen were targeted by a sniper or snipers, several police officers were already gunned down and the hotel was on fire. It was a bad situation...a very tense situation. We stayed behind the green car for what like seemed hours. Police were moving in and out of the hotel near the ground floor. As it turns out I happened to be in this hotel just two weeks before attending a function. I was familiar with the narrow halls - the elevator and the stairwells near the elevators. In a dimly lit situation, it must be nerve-wracking to seek out a person or persons with a gun, especially someone that has already targeted and shot police and firemen. From the exterior of the hotel we continued to film as best we could. For almost three hours we stayed in front of the hotel behind the car - it seemed like an eternity..... the cracking of gun fire seemed constant. We only knew what was happening in front of us. But then, as information began to slowly filter through the area, we heard that the Chief had been shot. Deputy Chief (Louis) Sirgo was shot! That information made us pause.....the situation is getting worse. It is a cold, damp day and knowing that officers were still being shot gave a very bad day a much more ominous feeling. There are a lot of unknowns...one of them - how many snipers are shooting from the hotel.

Hugging the buildings in the area we moved as best we could to the back of Charity Hospital. The emergency ramp was filled with ambulances... others were arriving. The sniper's victims are transported here. Emergency workers are cautiously peering out behind the hospital doors. Even from this distance it is a clear shot from the Howard Johnson's Hotel to Charity Hospital. There are no tall buildings sheltering the view to the emergency ramp. To the right of us were two police officers - their rifles are set atop sandbags - the sandbags are resting on the trunk of a car. Their eyes scanned the top of the hotel. Then all of a sudden a bullet hit the cement in front of our position. The sniper found other targets.  He was targeting the hospital staff that are assisting the victims from the hotel shootings.

Late in the evening the gun battle is still raging the exterior hotel fires seem to have abated. There are no visible sign of flames. Outside the Howard Johnson's Hotel, time feels frozen, the clouds are low and a slight bit of fog seems to be settling in. Then, coming from the southeast, a large twin bladed Sikorsky helicopter lumbered slowly near the hotel. The helicopter was flying no more than 250 feet above Loyola Avenue trying to position itself near a rectangular bunkhouse atop the hotel. Although gunfire is traded between the sniper and the helicopter this is the first time I was unable to hear the cracking of the bullet from the rifles. The tremendous noise of the helicopter blades cutting through the air at such a low level of flight roared over the sounds of gunfire. It was an unbelievable sight - a gun battle between those in the helicopter and a sniper or snipers on the roof of the hotel. Looking at this event unfold I could not help but realize that one bad shot to the helicopter would have brought the craft crashing to the ground on Loyola Avenue. The propwash from the helicopters blades at this low level made the small trees on the ground bend.  Trying to film in the propwash was like filming in a hurricane. The bunker on top of the hotel was the target.  We could see sections of it being chipped away by the rifle fire. The helicopter engine sounds reverberated off the other building.  Time moved in slow motion. The big helicopter made several passes. In what seemed like hours, but in reality was no more than thirty minutes, the helicopter slowly veered away from the hotel.

It was dark now, and I had been relieved from work in the field. The newsroom began preparing for staffing for the following day. There was so much confusion. Nobody knew how many snipers there were. Then all of a sudden another staff photographer came rushing into the film processing department shouting ”I think I have him…but we need to push the film two-stops.¨ The photographer went on to explain that during the gun battle with the helicopter he may have filmed the sniper being forced from the bunker and because night was falling the film needed extended time in the processing fluids to expose properly. Slowly out of the processor the film came, and as I reviewed the film, a dark shadowy figure emerged from the bunker house atop the Howard Johnson's. The figure, carrying a rifle, ran from the bunker house of the hotel and fell on the roof.  There was no movement.

Days later: The city tried to understand what happened on that Sunday, January 7, 1973. The sniper was identified. There were concerns that there was more than one sniper in the hotel, and there were funerals, many funerals. It was a sad time for the city.

To this day I often think about the events that happened four decades ago. Even now it is easy for me to visualize the large helicopter hovering just above Loyola Avenue - the valor of its crew. It is ever so easy to remember the field of battle in front of the Howard Johnsonś Hotel and the constant sound of gunfire.

And to this day I think about the hand of mortality touching the police officers and firemen responding to the incident. I often wonder what horror the firemen must have faced when responding to a fire and then being gunned down. I often wondered about the courage of the police officers continuing their fight against an unknown sniper in an urban environment - a sniper that has already shot and killed those in the attempted rescue mission.

And, in the days after the sniper incident, we thought aloud about what would have happened had Mark Essex decided to go on his killing rampage just one day later - Monday morning, when the city streets were filled with citizens going about their routine business day. It is said that history does not linger long and memories will fade with time.  Some memories take more time.

 

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