Hartford remembers deadly circus fire 73 years later

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HARTFORD – It was one of the darkest days in Connecticut history.

On July 6, 1944 a blaze broke out at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford with thousands of fans at the event.

In the matter of 10 minutes the tent collapsed, trapping victims underneath it. The fire resulted in the death of 168 people, about 100 of them were children.

At the same place the fire broke out, now sits a memorial for the victims of the deadly blaze. It’s behind the Wish School on Barbour Street.

At the memorial is a plaque describing what happened in the moments leading up to the tent burning down. Where the center ring once stood, are the victims’ names. Surrounding the memorial are dogwood trees which mark the perimeter of the big top.

Every year on the anniversary of the fire, the Hartford Fire Department holds a remembrance ceremony at the exact time the fire broke out, 2:40 p.m.

Survivor Nancy Spada shared her story, Thursday, saying she, her siblings and mother got out, but her father went back in to help rescue others.

“I really remember waiting for my father because he was a policeman and he went back and it seemed like eternity,” she said. “Then he walked over the hill and I thought oh dear lord, but he was bandaged up and he was scared for life.”

Spada, who was 8-years-old at the time, said she was never able to attend another circus.

“It was overwhelming and I still feel that way when I come up here,” Spada said. “I guess it just never leaves you, it feels like that.”

Survivor Jeffrey Cummings, 77, said he comes back every year. He lost five family members in the fire, something his father rarely spoke of.

“He had to go to the armory where the bodies were and identify those people,” Cummings said.

The tent was reportedly coated with wax and gasoline, as a water repellent which helped the small fire spread rapidly.

The fire was initially thought to be caused by a cigarette, but Connecticut investigators reopened the case years later officially declaring the cause to be undetermined, according to author of “The Hartford Circus Fire: Tragedy Under the Big Top,” Mike Skidgell.

The tragedy of that fateful day in 1944 is what sparked improving fire regulations in the city and the country.

In April, the Ringling Bros. held its final show in Hartford at the XL Center. 2017 marks the end of an era for the company.