Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Day The Clowns Cried

The Hartford Circus Fire

The Hartford Connecticut Circus Fire was one of the worst fire disasters in United States history. It happened on July 6, 1944. The fire occurred during a performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus with a crowd of between 6,000 and 8,000 people. More than 165 people died and 700 were injured. The fire began as a small flame on the southwest sidewall of the tent but quickly spread because of paraffin wax waterproofing of the tent. Many people were burned by melting paraffin. At first it was thought that the fire was started by a carelessly tossed cigarette. Later a man who worked as circus roustabout, Robert Segee, confessed to starting the fire but later recanted his confession. It is believed that the death rate was actually higher than the official count because of poor record keeping. Small children were sometimes not identified and some people were completely incinerated. Free tickets had been handed out and it was believed that many drifters died who would not have been identified anyway.

  The following section is from Wikipedia: While many people burned to death, many others died as a result of the ensuing chaos. Though most spectators were able to escape the fire, many people were caught up in the hysteria. Witnesses said some simply ran around in circles trying to find their loved ones, rather than trying to escape from the burning tent. Some escaped but ran back inside to look for family members. Others stayed in their seats until it was too late, assuming that the fire would be put out promptly. Because at least two of the exits were blocked by the chutes used to bring the show's big cats in and out of the tent, people trying to escape could not bypass them. Some died from injuries sustained after leaping from the tops of the bleachers in hopes they could escape under the sides of the tent, though that method of escape ended up killing more than it saved. Others died after being trampled by other spectators, with some asphyxiating underneath the piles of people who fell over each other. Most of the dead were found in piles, some three bodies deep, at the most congested exits. A small number of people were found alive at the bottoms of these piles, protected by the bodies on top of them when the burning big top ultimately fell down. Because of a picture that appeared in several newspapers of sad tramp clown Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket, the event became known as "the day the clowns cried."

  The most famous victim was little Miss 1565. For 47 years she lay in a grave identified as Little Miss 1565. Every year on the anniversary of the fire two Hartford detectives placed flowers on her grave. Because the little girl's body was so well preserved investigators were finally able to identify her, with the help of family photos and family members as Eleanor Cook. A little girl of 8 who had attended the circus that day with her mother Mildred and brothers Donald and Edward. They were sitting in the top bleacher near where the fire started. Mildred was badly burned and wrapped in bandages from head to toe but would survive. Donald, the oldest child, became separated but made it home uninjured. Little Edward, who was six, died in the fire and Eleanor was nearly trampled to death in the stampede. She lived for three hours after being taken to the hospital. Even though her body was barely burned she was never identified. Mildred placed a marker next to Edwards grave that read "Eleanor Emily Cook. March 17, 1936--July 6, 1944." The ground beneath it contains no body, but Mildred Cook would plant flowers there to memorialize her daughter for many years.


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