Monday July 8, 2013

Alden Graves

"It was like you opened Hell’s doors and you had all you could do to run the other way." - a survivor

Nearly three quarters of a century later, if you ask anyone in Hartford with longstanding connections to the area about "the fire," the person will know immediately what you are talking about. No further elaboration is necessary, as if there had only ever been one fire in the city’s long and eventful history.

July 6, 1944 was a sweltering day. By 10 that morning the temperature was already creeping towards the 80s. The prospect of spending the afternoon under a heavy canvas circus tent surrounded by thousands of other perspiring people didn’t appeal to a number of parents who had promised their children a chance to enjoy The Greatest Show On Earth. The heat didn’t bother the kids all that much and a promise was a promise.

Later, a few lucky ones recalled that their parents had remained impervious to their pleas. Money was tight, transportation was unreliable, and it was just too damn hot.

It would be the only matinee in Hartford by the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The circus had missed its scheduled first performance on July 5 because the train was late getting into Hartford from Providence. It was wartime and most things took precedence over entertainment events. Manpower was so scarce that circus management gave local boys free passes if they helped with the set-up or distributed promotional leaflets in the community.

The large, rectangular lot off of Barbour Street had once been proposed as the site of a new high school, but the city had given the land to the Public Building Commission after the plans for a school had been changed. The street itself was a mixture of middle-class homes, businesses, and tenements. The circus had located on the same piece of land once every year for a decade, paying the city $500 a day for its usage.

A company that made tombstones was located to the right of the lot’s entrance. Directly behind it, a maroon snow fence enclosed a large victory garden. The western and southern sides of the lot were bordered by woods. The terrain was flat and dusty. The set-up crew could see where neighborhood kids had played baseball in the dry grass.

The cancellation of the matinee on July 5 might have been understandable, but to circus folk -- notoriously superstitious -- missing a performance was the worst kind of bad omen. The evening performance, however, had gone off without any problems.

The matinee on July 6 began a little after 2. It seemed even hotter and muggier under the big top and people waited impatiently. The performance was almost a sell-out, bolstered by those who had planned to attend the cancelled show the day before. There were 5,500 people sitting in the grandstands and another 3,200 in the bleachers for a grand total of approximately 8,700 men, women, and children.

Once it began, the performance went exactly as scheduled. Mary Kovar, in the west cage, and Joseph Welsh in the east cage, had thrilled the crowd with acts that involved lions, bears, panthers, and even Great Danes. The lights dimmed for the Wallendas and their high wire act performed 30 feet above the floor of the tent. As Kovar and Welsh hustled their animals through wire chutes and out of the tent, bandleader Merle Evans struck up a waltz. Herman and Karl Wallenda began to inch bicycles out onto the wire.

It is very rare that anyone sees the beginning of a catastrophic conflagration, although most of the people who survived the circus fire claimed that they did. The exact cause has never been conclusively determined, but it is generally agreed that it began on the sidewall outside the southwest bleachers, near an area that served as the men’s restroom.

It was originally the size of a dime, then a quarter, then a dinner plate and then beyond stopping. It snaked up the wall following the lacing on the tent panels towards a roof that had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin diluted with white gasoline.

Some people thought that the first flames were part of the show and some thought -- incredibly -- that someone was playing a practical joke. Others, understanding that there was potential danger, decided to let those in charge deal with it. Surely, they thought, the circus has made provisions for this possibility. (The extent of the circus’ planning for a fire was sloshing around in small water buckets beneath the grandstands.) High above the crowd, the Wallendas knew something was terribly wrong and Merle Evans quickly halted the waltz and instructed the band to strike up "Stars and Stripes Forever." The playing of this particular song was an agreed signal, recognized by all circus personnel, that there was some kind of trouble in the big tent.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.