The Circus Fire

book cover


The band blasted it, sat there while the fire came straight at them, the crowd splitting like a river around the bandstand. The flames were above the end grandstand sections, not far to go. It was snowing fire. Hot cables were falling, cinders, embers.

The kettle drums exploded from the heat.

"Jump!" Merle Evans directed, and the band bailed--like true musicians, taking their instruments with them. A flaming quarterpole toppled, dropped onto the stand like a hammer.

Faces smudged, white uniforms scorched, they regrouped outside and serenaded the dazed crowd that stood there watching the drums and the organ burn.

A man leading two children straggled out. "By the time we got to the end of the tent we got out the door on the right of the bandstand. I do recall going outside of the tent, and the bandleader was standing there blowing his trumpet, and there were a couple of bandsmen around there. They were playing right at the entrance to the tent." Both children had third-degree burns all over, the man second-degree burns on his lips.

By the southeast exit, a Coca-Cola top caught fire, flames enveloping tiers of empty deposit bottles in yellow wooden crates. The glass melted and pooled like water.

Inside, in the withering heat, a twelve-year-old boy and his mother reached the top of the stands. She dropped him down and told him to go. He did what she said.

High up, the guyropes parted, the rigging gave way, and the poles by the northeast corner slumped inward, then the center of the canvas. The tent sagged--slowly, not all at once, the flags on top bending almost horizontal--and then with a hissing, swishing sound, the big top collapsed on itself, the heavy centerpoles falling one after another, smashing the animal cages, crushing people. The quarters--thick as phone poles--banged into the grandstands, denting the railings.

Robert Onorato caught it on film, shooting from atop an embankment at the east end. Slowed down on video, the fire licks up the visible tip of the eastmost centerpole and wraps the flag. The flag catches and drops as if it's melting, falls, and immediately the tent collapses, softly, belling like a ball gown when its wearer curtsies, like a sail emptied of wind.

Around the south side, Spencer Torell got off shot after shot, the series showing the fire eating the tent's skin away, leaving the skeletal rigging, the quarterpoles still vainly linked by wires.

As the canvas fell it pushed the heat beneath out through the sidewalls. The blast of hot air almost knocked people down.

A woman burst from the back door, badly burned on her face and arms, crying "Find my child! Find my child!" A policeman hurried her to the doctor's tent. She kept asking about her son, where was he, was he all right.

Another mother crawled out from under the sidewall with her son, striking daylight just as the tent collapsed, a samaritan pulling them free.

The last dashed out with their arms and legs and bodies raw and bleeding, heads and necks grotesquely blistered. The smell of burned hair turned stomachs.

Not everyone escaped. The tent fell on those unlucky enough to be inside. A lot of people outside watching it fall had no idea where their loved ones were. Don Cook watched it fall, and Joan Smith, and Stanley Kurneta, and Barbara and Mary Kay Smith, and Mabel Epps.

The burning tent settled on top of those left, pinning them. Under the pile by the northeast chute, Elliott Smith could hear people above him moaning and praying. At the bottom of the mound on the track, Donald Gale thought his leg was broken. He tried to push himself up and discovered he couldn't budge.

The fire came crackling over the paraffined canvas, a soft rushing whoosh like the approach of wind.

The praying stopped, and then there was just screaming. People outside were stunned to hear women and children moaning and crying for their lives. Like howling, witnesses described it as. Terrible, eerie screeching.

Several survivors said the one thing they will never forget about the circus fire as long as they live is the sound of the animals as they burned alive. But there were no animals.

Death by fire

The ones on top burned. Trapped by their weight, flat on his stomach, Elliott Smith could hear them screaming. He could breathe all right, he wasn't suffocating. He could see the reflection of the fire on the ground directly in front of him. He spat at the sawdust, trying to put it out.

He felt short stabs of pain in his back, like being jabbed again and again with a knife. Above him, the screaming stopped.

Donald Gale gathered his strength and forced his hands free, and then his arms, his face--just as the fire roared over the track. He saw a flash of light and pulled back, trying to hide in the pile, but it was too late. The burns were like being pinched hard all over, like someone was sticking pins in his hands. The heat fused his knuckles into lumps, seared his arms up to his shoulders. After a minute he passed out.

The pile at the northeast chute only covered Jerry LeVasseur from the chest down. The fire tore at his head and hands and shoulders, turning his skin into fuel, then moved on.

In a typical structural fire smoke is the killer because it has no place to go--as in the Cocoanut Grove. Trapped victims fall unconscious, like Mildred and Edward Cook. They involuntarily breathe in superheated air which scorches the lungs, and poison gases. The body responds by dousing the lungs with fluid, and the victims either asphyxiate or drown in their own juices. In an overwhelming percentage of cases, fire victims die before the flames touch them. Here was the exception, and on a grand scale.

Those who'd jumped off the top rows of the grandstands and bleachers and broken their ankles or legs and couldn't run were helpless, trapped and tangled under the burning canvas. The fire ate their clothes and then their skin and then their tissues, the fat raging like gasoline.

The stands burned, the bibles and bleachers--everything. This part of the fire was probably the hottest. The circus painted their grandstand chairs with a dip method, hanging them on hooks and lowering them into a bath of that year's color. Over the seasons, the chairs built up thick layers, all of them volatile. Nearly fifty years later, when a Hartford detective touched a match to a paint chip taken from one lucky chair, it flared up like a chunk of Sterno.

The heat withered trees, sent people fleeing, afraid the woods might catch fire. Deacon Blanchfield directed his water trucks. "I started the trucks over to protect the wild-animal cages, and someone told me there were people in there burning, and I countermanded the order and put the trucks to work.... They told me there was a little boy burning in the exit, and when the trucks came to the exit, I stopped them at the exit, and had them play water onto these people."

The wagons to the south side of the tent were burning, and some concession tops. A circus hand jumped in a Coca-Cola truck and backed it away from the tent.

The flames were dangerously close to the light plant and its generators, which were filled with diesel. In his Weary Willie costume--complete with huge shoes--Emmett Kelly came rushing over with a wash bucket full of water, his painted frown a perfect expression of dismay and helplessness.

Hands filled buckets from a canvas trough on wheels near where the menagerie had been. Gangs of roughnecks strained to push the light wagons away from the tent. Their tires were burning. Deacon Blanchfield had tractors come in and drag them out, water truck 133 spraying them as they rolled.

Engine Company 7 was the first unit to arrive. As they neared box 82 at Clark and Westland, they slowed. Two boys in the road pointed toward the circus, and they accelerated. The tent was down on the ground, the fire confined to the east end. At a glance, 7's captain saw that despite George W. Smith's efforts they couldn't fit the truck along the south side. They'd have to lay a line in. There was a hydrant right by the grounds, but still it would be a ton of hose. The captain called on the civilians standing there to lend a hand. Young John Stewart stepped forward and volunteered.

They laid nine hundred feet, then had to add another one hundred fifty. It stretched down to the southeast corner where the Coca-Cola top was now a puddle of glass and ashes. "That's not water," someone warned the firemen, and they detoured around it. By the time they reached the east end there was no tent left, only the bleachers burning, so they directed their attentions to the wagons.

Commissioner Hickey hustled down the midway and found a policeman. He asked the officer to see that all cars with stretchers went to the east end, and as soon as possible, even if they had to run over the hoses. He slid into cruiser number 8 where Chief Hallissey was sitting. After a brief conference, Hickey got on the radio and called Governor Baldwin, a friend and fellow Republican. They would need to mobilize all civilian defense forces within reach of the city. Immediately. Yes, it was that bad. Transportation was going to be a problem, and crowd control.

"Listen," Baldwin said, "I'll go on the air and tell them not to go out there when they hear of the fire but to communicate with this office."

Hickey agreed.

Mayor William Mortensen arrived minutes after the first fire crews. He saw the bodies at the chute and conferred with Hickey, then used the phone at McGovern's to call the State Armory. They would use the huge floor of the drill shed as a makeshift morgue.

The governor contacted the state police and asked the Connecticut State Guard to alert their reserves. Baldwin then enlisted all the doctors, nurses and medical supplies he could get from the Veterans' Home in Rocky Hill and the Veterans' Hospital in Newington. He mobilized a corps of state employees there at the Capitol to take care of the clerical duties at the armory, then set up his emergency broadcast with WTIC.

A popular governor, Baldwin had recently announced he would not seek reelection. State's Attorney H. Meade Alcorn and some other Republicans had drawn up a petition urging him to reconsider--for the good of the state, not just the party--but Baldwin was firm. He was supposed to be taking it easy, cruising through his last months in office. Now this.

He wasn't alone in his efforts. The state and the city were fully prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. After the flood of '36 and the great hurricane of '38 and the Charter Oak Bridge collapse in '41, both had devised wide-ranging organizations capable of responding to any catastrophe in a concerted manner. After Pearl Harbor, the State War Council added thousands of volunteers to the mix and a level of vigilance that would never be duplicated. On the heels of the Cocoanut Grove, Dr. Donald B. Wells of Hartford Hospital coordinated all these agencies with the state police, the Red Cross, and Hartford County's seven civilian hospitals.

A major air raid, a tornado, a munitions explosion--the plan and the equipment were in place, right down to dozens of department-store delivery trucks fitted with special racks to accommodate stretchers. Bandages. Blood plasma. The new wonder drug penicillin.

They would need all of it.

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Excerpted from The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright © 2000 by Stewart O'Nan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.