HARTFORD, Conn. – Nancy Spada was in a circus tent 60 years agowhen a small ball of fire began to grow to the left of where shewas sitting at the top of some bleachers.
The big top at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & BaileyCircus soon became engulfed, sending the matinee crowd of 6,000 -mostly women and children – scrambling for their lives.
The tent was waterproofed with 1,800 pounds of paraffin andthinned with 6,000 gallons of gasoline, and burned quickly to theground, giving those inside little time to escape.
In the panic to flee, people climbed over animal chutes andtoward exits. Some fell and were trampled. Most victims were foundpiled up near an exit blocked by animal cages.
The blaze killed 168 people and injured 700 on July 6, 1944.Spada, who was 8 at the time, escaped with her parents and twosisters, but lost two relatives.
“My mom and dad went to the funeral of my aunt and cousin, butafter that we never talked about it. I don’t know why. It was justtoo painful, or that generation just never talked about things likethat,” she said.
On Tuesday, Hartford plans to dedicate a memorial to thevictims, which will be located where the center ring once stood. Itwill have the names of those who died etched in blue stone andinclude pedestrian pathways lined with plaques and bricks carryingmessages of victims’ families, survivors and othercontributors.
It is hoped the memorial will be completed by fall.
The youngest survivors of the fire are now in their 60s, butmost were too grief-stricken to think about building a memorialbefore, said Hartford Fire Chief Charles A. Teale, a co-chairman ofthe Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation, which has raised morethan $100,000.
“It was during the aftermath of the depression and during WorldWar II. People were already overwhelmed with the experiences oflife. They went to the circus for entertainment, and came awaylosing 100 children and 68 adults,” Teale said.
The cause of the fire was initially blamed on a smolderingcigarette, but police later concluded it had been set. State policereopened the case in 1991 to investigate whether arson wasinvolved, but eventually reclassified the cause asundetermined.