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'The Circus Fire: A True Story' by Stewart O’Nan

O'Nan's exhaustive research pays off in tale of circus fire tragedy

Sunday, July 16, 2000

By Russ Brignano


The Circus Fire: A True Story

By Stewart O’Nan



I was 9 and probably spoiled, so I must have easily persuaded my mother to take me and my 5-year-old brother to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus matinee in Hartford, Conn. My father, who would be off duty from his firefighter’s job, could drive us there and pick us up later.

Shortly after noon on Thursday, July 6, 1944, we were ready to go. Word of our adventure had spread through our neighborhood wedged into an industrial and commercial zone of West Hartford, composed mainly of working-class Piedmontese Italians from near Asti. My mother was besieged by a bunch of kids, two or three of them my cousins, wanting to join us.

We all excitedly piled into my father’s massive but ancient Huppmobile. Unfortunately, not everyone had enough money for the circus, and my mother, already worried about controlling the throng, disappointed all of us by declaring that we would instead head to the air-conditioned Rivoli Theater in Hartford. The day was going to be a scorcher anyway.

I don’t remember what movies we saw, but I do remember most vividly hearing the sirens, most of all, watching the ushers and theater personnel going up and down the aisles with their flashlights, calling out names to find out whether certain people were in the audience. At some point, we must have learned that the circus tent had gone up in flames and that perhaps 200 were dead.

Outside, my father was waiting for us, and he was grim. Although we had been among the fortunate in Hartford that day, there was nothing to celebrate in this tragedy.

In some respects, however, Stewart O’Nan’s account of that fire is a celebration -- of acts of bravery, compassion and quick thinking and of the benefits of disaster preparation. After moving to the Hartford area, the Pittsburgh-born novelist looked around for a history of the fire, but he found none. He then set out on a personal research odyssey that seems to have taken on the dimensions of an obsession.

The result is in many ways a remarkable book. Foremost is the thoroughness of O’Nan’s work. His acknowledgments section itself is exhaustive. Besides archival, library, newspaper and hospital sources, he found, for instance, circus route books from the era. He also interviewed scores of people, some of them, like me, who had stories of how they had almost been under the big tent that afternoon.

The book is profusely illustrated, and the photos well placed in terms of the text. O’Nan had the good sense to reject pictures of the most gruesome scenes, instead letting his words create the images of charred and fused bodies and the painful burns of the survivors.

All the 167 victims, mostly women and children, died either from burning or from being trampled in the stampede. None had been asphyxiated. At least 487 others were injured and 140 hospitalized, the last one released more than nine months after the blaze.

O’Nan gives us the facts, integrates his numerous interviews and research sources and keeps himself out of the picture as much as possible. He is so often a reporter that what is missing are analysis and generalization -- what this story can teach us. We must figure things out for ourselves.

The Hartford fire in the circus’ main tent came less than two years after a fire at its menagerie tent in Cleveland killed 49 animals. That tent had been treated with the same water retardant used on the big top, a combination of white gasoline and paraffin. Safer fireproofing chemicals existed but were being funneled into the war effort.

How and where the fire started are still debatable. The official version focuses on grassy ground near the tent, where a cigarette or match was dropped. O’Nan believes it began near a portable toilet and higher on the canvas wall.

Whether the fire was arson is also disputable, despite a confession by an ex-circus hand of questionable repute.

Another “mystery” of the fire is the unclaimed body of “Little Miss 1,565.” Her identity, seemingly resolved in 1990, remains a puzzle for O’Nan, who thinks an earlier misidentification of a badly burned body led to a chain of mistakes.

Not mysterious is O’Nan’s realistic, intense account of the day. We acutely sense the panic in the audience of about 8,700. We are amazed by the courage of some, like the man who tossed children over the caged-animal chute blocking an escape route, only to fall back and be crushed to death as the mob piled against the chute.

We are appalled by the cowardice of others, like the sailor who broke a woman’s jaw so he could push around her.

It’s a “good” story well told, though not always for the faint of heart.

“The Circus Fire” is not without its problems. Occasionally, O’Nan’s narrative is confusing because the proliferation of names and the chronological structure must compete with simultaneous actions and events. But the topic itself is absorbing, and O’Nan enhances it with superb research instincts, fine journalistic skills and a detached yet direct writing style.

Russ Brignano is an emeritus Penn State University English professor.

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