SCHEDULED AIR DATES:
Wednesday July 4th 8pm – 9:30pm
Friday July 6th 12 noon – 1:30pm
In 1944, Hartford was just one of many scheduled stops on the summer tour for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. The city was a busy center for manufacturing in support of the war effort, but many parents still found time to leave work or housework, to bring their children to the big show.
Thousands converged on the circus grounds at Barbour Street in Hartford for the matinee performance on Thursday July 6th. The circus tent, known as the big top, was the largest on Earth, at the time. The weather was sunny and stiflingly hot.
Less than a half hour after the beginning of the performance, the famous Flying Wallendas were just ready to begin their high wire trapeze act, when someone spotted a small fire on the side of the tent wall. Circus workers were unable to extinguish the flames and the fire spread quickly. Panic spread as thousands of people rushed towards the exits to escape the heat and flames. Within eight minutes, the entire tent was engulfed in flames, and it collapsed on those still trying to get out.
Most of those thousands of people escaped, but 168 died, some weeks later from their injuries. 72 of the dead are believed to have been children under the age of 18. It remains to this day, the worst disaster in the history of the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut.
For years afterwards, people rarely talked about the fire, preferring to forget the bad memories. Many mysteries remained as well. How did it start? Why couldn’t people get out in time? Perhaps the biggest mystery was that of a little girl who died as a result of her injuries at the fire, but whose body remained unclaimed, even though her face was only slightly burned, and so it was thought she should have been easily identifiable. The true identity of the little girl, known only by her morgue number, 1565, was unknown for decades.
For a fourth year, WWUH will present a special program examining the mysteries of the Hartford Circus Fire tragedy. This 90-minute program, entitled, The Hartford Circus Fire – An Audio Recollection, includes an interview with Don Massey, who along with fire investigator Rick Davey, co-authored the book A Matter of Degree, The Hartford Circus Fire and the Mystery of Little Miss 1565. The program also includes interviews with survivors of the fire, as well as archival radio broadcasts from the day of the fire, courtesy WTIC Newstalk 1080.
If you’ve never heard the story, we invite you to tune in.
WWUH: Program Guide 2007