Angela Hill & Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - For Lisa Sirgo and her mother, Joyce, photos of the man they knew as a husband and father bring back happy memories.
But there are darker ones too - of a sniper named Mark Essex, and his terrorizing grip on downtown New Orleans, 40 years ago.
As Channel 4 anchor Bill Elder explained it on January 7, 1973, the reports of fire came first.
“The story that burst open on a quiet Sunday morning began with a fire report then suddenly a fireman fell back on his ladder wounded, and the toll of death and maiming began,” Elder reported back then.
That fire lieutenant was Tim Ursin.
“I just heard a loud boom,” he explained last week at his home in Slidell.
Ursin was of the first firefighters to respond to the Howard Johnson's hotel at Loyola and Gravier Streets, now a Holiday Inn.
Ursin was also one of the sniper's first victims. He lost part of his arm to a bullet, and like everyone on the scene that day, had no idea what was to come.
“We get to the fire and when we get there, it’s pandemonium, a lot of people running around, a lot of police, which is not a normal thing,” Ursin said.
Nothing would be normal from then on. Essex, 23, an ex-Navy man, filled with hate and armed to kill, had already claimed victims inside the hotel, setting fires and then opening fire on police.
“It's a pretty clear day in my memory, almost like yesterday,” said Lisa Sirgo.
Sirgo, who was 15 at the time, remembers taking the telephone call at home that summoned her dad, Deputy Chief Louis Sirgo, to the scene.
“He went out to the car in the driveway to pack his car and he said, ‘See you later, alligator.’ That was it,” she said, crying.
Deputy Chief Sirgo would later lead a team of officers up the hotel stairs on a rescue mission to free a trapped officer. Retired Capt. Jules Killelea, then Sirgo’s administrative assistant, was with him.
“Well that’s the kind of person he was. He led his men into battle. So he was leading us into this attempt. Instead of saying go up there, he said, ‘Follow me up the stairs guys.’”
A short time later, a shot came from overhead, taking Sirgo's life.
“As he took his first step off the landing to go up that second half-flight, there was a tremendously loud shot. He immediately fell back on to me,” Killelea explained in an interview last week.
“Devastating” is the word Sirgo’s widow, Joyce, now 86, uses to describe the news she would later hear on television, that her husband had been killed.
“It was shock, just shock,” Lisa Sirgo said, “and then that whole day was just…the house was just filled with our family and friends. Archbishop Hannan even came to our house that day.”
Sirgo was gone, but the tragedy far from over. In a week's time, Essex would gun down 19 people including 10 police officers.
It would be the bullets fired by police in a military helicopter and other sharpshooters in nearby buildings, that would finally end the ordeal, riddling Essex's body with 200 shots, according to the autopsy performed later.
After his death, a letter Essex had written before the rampage and sent to WWL-TV, promising violence, would reveal the mental illness and racism he felt he and other African-Americans had endured, only fueled his rage.
The confusion and chaos he caused gripped the city for days.
Channel 4 news photographer Willie Wilson Jr. was a young employee of the station who volunteered to go out to the scene and shoot film of the incident.
“It was a sense of panic,” he remembers. “Nobody really knew how many snipers there were. Even today, you talk to people that were involved, they really don’t know. Some say it was one, some say it was more than one.”
As for the police response, Killelea, who retired in the mid-1990s, points out that this was before any NOPD SWAT team was in existence.
“We were unprepared, I think, in my humble opinion. We were totally unprepared for this type of event. Now they're 100 percent prepared for it.”
But some things you can never fully prepare for, like the power of Tim Ursin's fire nozzle, which he says spared his life. He still has it, with the bullet lodged inside.
“I had it tucked under my chin and the bullet passed through my forearm, hit the nozzle,” he showed us. “That saved my life, right there. There’s no doubt about it.”
Among the other police casualties in the approximate 11-hour standoff that day were Officers Philip Coleman and Paul Persigo. K-9 Sgt. Edwin Hosli Sr. and cadet Alfred Harrell Jr. were killed a week earlier, on New Year's Eve. Their deaths were later linked to Essex.
Civilian victims included hotel guests Dr. and Mrs. Robert Steagall, a honeymooning couple ambushed inside the building by Essex, and hotel employees Frank Schneider and Walter Collins.