By Janice Matthews
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2006
On a beautiful summer day in 1944, Hartford experienced one of its greatest tragedies when a fire blazed through the Hartford Matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, killing 168 people and injuring 682. That event left an indelible imprint on the memories of those who lived through or lost loved ones that day. In 2002 the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation was founded with a dual purpose: to build a permanent memorial to honor the victims of the tragedy and collect the memories of those who were there. The first of these goals was realized July 6, 2005 with the dedication of the memorial, in the shape of a circus tent, on the disaster site on what had been a vacant lot owned by the City of Hartford behind the Fred D. Wish Elementary School in the city’s North End. A call went out in the fall of 2003 for people to send in their personal recollections of that horrifying day. The responses were collected by Don Massey of Willow Brook Press and are reprinted by permission.
After a few seconds, we heard a crackling noise right above our heads. Then we saw the blaze that was traveling very fast.
We sat on the top bleacher in the main tent, and despite being about 3 ½ years old, I can clearly remember the humid day, the commotion and din of the crowd of people and kids, the band playing and the strong smell of straw, urine and animals. My next clear memory was of the sky appearing through the canopy of the tent with a fast moving orange and yellow striped log of fire rolling towards us … the look of the fire from underneath it as it surged skyward.
My father reacted quickly, and held me as far down from the back of the bleachers as he could and dropped me to the ground, and then jumped down holding my younger sister, Madeline, and then he raced to the back of the tent where he and a few other men sliced the canvas to create a slit for escape, (He had used this trick as a youngster many times to sneak into the circus.) He handed my sister and I off to a large, elderly Black man with huge hands who firmly gripped six or seven children in each hand.
My father ran back and into the tent where he and a few other men grabbed some women and children, slung them over their shoulders, or carried them back to the opening. He said there were about 10 men working as a team, and that the women at the back of the crowd were not shoving but waiting to get past the animal chutes. He and others shouted for them to turn around and hurry to the back of the tent to escape. Some followed, but most looked at him, making an instantaneous, and in his opinion, fatal decision … .
At the time, my mother, Connie Cassarino Orsini, was at home on Barker Street with my baby sister … when my grandmother burst in, in hysterics, since she heard on the radio that there was terrible fire at the circus … . From the porch of the three family house, my mother and grandmother could see the huge column of black smoke coming from the north end of the city. My mother said she sat by the cribs, in a rocker, in shock, refusing to believe that we were not survivors until my father finally got to a phone to bring the news that we were fine.
Barbara Orsini Surwilo, Rocky HIll
All I know is that we were all having a great time when I heard my uncle yell we have to get out. The next thing I knew was my sister Dolores, age 9, was dragging me by my hair (I had long curls) under the bleachers and out the side of the tent where someone had cut it open. I was outside where everyone was screaming, crying, people burning right in front of my eyes. My uncle hugged us and then noticed my sister Peggy, age, 7, was missing … .
My uncle left us with a nice couple … so he could look for my sister. … My uncle came back … and without my sister. … We had to go home and see our parents for he was sure they were out of their mind not knowing what had happened to us. As we were walking to the car … we saw this girl coming from the parking lot and you can imagine how we felt when we saw it was my sister Peg. … My uncle asked her how she got out and she just looked at him and said “I got out the way we came in, wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?” He just laughed and kissed her again.
We found out that my mom and aunt Eda were shopping in G. Fox & Co. Inside the store there was a lady screaming and running up and down the aisles yelling that the circus was on fire and everyone was dead. At first they did not know what she was saying and when it finally sank in they were in shock. My mom had all her children there and my aunt had her only daughter and husband there. All they could do was to go home and wait.
Francis V. Mogelnicki, June 28, 2004
In the mass panic, I was pushed between the bleachers to the ground losing my pocketbook, sodas, and shoes. I immediately got up, though bruised, and ran outside but I could not find my brother or my friend. Prior to leaving home that day my parents admonished me to take care of my little brother. Without further thought, I ran back into the burning tent to find Jimmy. But I was immediately picked up by a man run[ning]out of the tent who forcibly carried me back outside. I remember, sadly, that as he was carrying me away, I was hysterically tearing at his face and trying to get away so that I may find my brother. As it turned out, God was with all of us as my friend Maureen and my brother Jimmy were found safe and together.
Now we were faced with another problem which was how to get home. … We decided to make our way to a nearby house to call home … [but]the telephone lines were jammed. On our way to this home we saw so many burned people running or being carried away on stretchers. We then decided to walk to the bus stop … We were disheveled, dirty, and exhausted. Fortunately, the bus pulled up and before we could tell the bus driver that we did not have any money, the bus driver said, “come aboard and rest.”
While we were making our way home on the bus, my friend’s father … was already in Hartford and was checking the temporary morgues where the victims of the fire were brought. …He mistakenly identified me as a victim of the fire. Within minutes, our bus pulled to a stop at the corner of Main and Linden streets in East Hartford. We were home. My loving parents were beside themselves with profound relief. As it turned out, Dad had tried to get to the circus fire site but was turned back by authorities.
Dolores Barrows Arsenault, East Hartford, February 19, 2004.
The band started playing and the circus animals started doing their act… . The cats had finished in our area and the flying trapeze artists had started their ascent to the top of the tent when we turned around due to a bad smell to see the whole back of the tent behind us in flames … My dad grabbed the two friends and me and started down the bleachers. My mom, who was bringing down my twin, yelled to him that my sister wasn’t moving very well (she had been overcome by the heat and the smoke.) Dad told her to drop her between the bleachers and he caught her. He hustled us out of the same exit we had just come in. … He turned to go back for my mother who was making her way out of the tent… .
My dad made the decision to get us out of town. …As we drove a way we could see the elephants walking in a line each holding on to the tail in front of him. Dad drove very fast back toward Middletown where we lived. I remember being scared because he was driving so fast. Unbeknownst to us, my mom was badly burned and he knew she needed medical attention. …He dropped all of us children at their friends’ house where my baby sister was then drove my mom to the hospital. He was treated for minor burns on his arms, but she was admitted. …My grandmother came to stay to take care of us all. She was with us quite awhile, as after mom got out of the hospital she could not hold my baby sister for the longest time due to the burns.
Pauline Tibbals Slopek, Ashland, Massachusetts
As dawn broke on July 6, 1944, I am six years old, living in the north end of Hartford with my parents, Francis and Mary Lonergan. My mother said my father loved the circus — he looked forward to going with great anticipation… .
I remember I was thinking about the elephants that accepted peanuts from me before we went into the tent and how I was overwhelmed at the sight of the big cats before me.
[As we tried to escape, we] were being crushed and swirled around by the crowds, people on fire, being trampled, trying to escape the inferno and [my mother]and father were separated. I remember my father running with me and I was looking back —
Mother wandered, searching, certainly in a state of shock. She crawled under elephants, tried to help people, many on fire, she saw people trampled to death, people trying to help those they could, the poor terrified animals. One woman came close to my mother, most of her clothing on fire, and asked mother if she had seen her little girl. …
Mother agonized about Little Miss 1565 for years, and found comfort when Lieutenant Davey found her family and brought her home.
Mary Lawlor Lonergan
Ed: The following is an excerpt of a longer letter written the day after the fire by Douglas Fellows, who worked for The Hartford Courant as an art director and Sunday Supplement editor. It was submitted by Dorothy Fellows Haines, whose mother received this letter from her nephew.
It being make-up day, I had spent the early afternoon in the composing room making up the Sunday Magazine. Having finished I walked into the office and was greeted by Vee Andersen who said, “The circus is on fire.” His only daughter, Gail, and her friend, had gone. …In 30 seconds Vee and I were on our way… .
Nothing was left of the great arena … except the charred remains of the bleachers. …It was hopeless. Inside there was nothing to identify. The scene was one of indescribable horror. Only a few fathers had gotten in … It was the worst at the barrier used to bring on the wild animal act. Here more than 60 bodies were piled against the iron tunnel. Workers, sick but still working, carried charred remains out through what had been the entrance. …It wasn’t until I arrived back at the office that I learned that Gail and her friend had returned safely. …
Of course as Art Director I had to go to work. It was just quitting time when the entire responsibility for photographs and photographers was turned over to me and from that point on my time was divided between choosing pictures, talking to picture editors in other cities, setting up wire photo men, writing captions, keeping people from handling prints and a thousand and one other things that always happen when there is so much confusion in one place. The supper I was supposed to eat at 7 o’clock was finally eaten nearer nine [o’clock]. I had no appetite, I thought, but found that I was like a car which needed to be refueled.
It wasn’t until the last picture had left for the engravers that I left the job to learn that one man in the composing room hadn’t been lucky. His wife and son had been lost. By the time I arrived home, Kay was upset. …Calls from her worried relatives had made her conscious of the extent of the tragedy. …Of course we talked, and I’m sure I talked in circles. Going to bed was useless because as soon as I began to relax, pictures flashed across my mind. Whatever I tried to think about, my thoughts returned to that one subject. When I finally slept it was complete exhaustion.
Today was naturally difficult. All the work I should have done yesterday was piled up. A radio script for Saturday, Sunday’s garden column, the magazine and the rest of the ordinary routine. Needless to say, I’m glad … I wasn’t one of the tortured fathers who searched with or without success. Mine was the experience of a work horse who had a bad job to do. Nothing can be more horrible than fire. …The hurricane was nothing like this, because there I saw only the destruction of property.
Copyright Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation, http://www.circusfire1944.com/
“What a Disaster!” Fall 2011
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