The Hartford blaze that
consumed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's big top during the July 6, 1944
matinee cost 167 spectator their lives and was the worst public catastrophe in
Connecticut's history. Just a hundred of these people were over the age of
15, and only 10 of them were men because it was a Thursday, a workday, and
many men were in the military fighting in WWII. In fact, the circus staff was
short one-third of its normal strength.
It was a hot day, and on the sidewall behind the southwest bleachers a small flame sprang up just 20 minutes into the performance. In an instant, it was, as Stewart O'Nan puts it [in his book The Circus Fire], "eating the roof, finding fuel". At first the performance continued; some members of the audience even thought the flames were part of the show.
The main tent, biggest in the world, was new and water-proofed with a solution of parrafin and gasoline spread on the canvas with brooms. The circus officials claimed fire proofing material was not available because the military would not release it, although they said the gasoline would evaporate in a short time. Obviously, the tent was highly inflammable.
9,000 people were in attendance that afternoon; 8,000 were able to get out of the tent unharmed, but 487 were injured, 167 died, mostly women and children. Only ten men died and one was our cousin, William Lee Curlee.
Bill Curlee is mentioned 8 times in Stewart O'Nan's new book and more than once as a hero. He and his brother-in-law Albert Cadoret took their children and other neighborhood kids to the circus. Bill was working in Cleveland as an inspector for one of Pratt & Whitney's vendors, and was visiting family on the east coast. The metal chutes to funnel the wild circus animals into the rings blocked two of the main exits. While the animal handlers were trying to force the lions and panthers out through the chute to their rolling cages parked outside the tent, people were pressing toward the blocked exits. Bill led his son David to the northeast chute and tossed the boy over the chute telling him to go to the car. "I'll meet you there." Bill climbed onto the bars to follow, but stopped to pull another boy over the chute. He stood atop the chute throwing kids to safety, one after another. "He was a big man, and young, a rarity in this audience." However as he lifted yet another child over, his foot slipped between the bars, he fell and the crowd dragged him under."
Cause of the fire was never completely solved after many investigations, the last one in 1990 by Detective Tom Goodrow whose wife, Joan, was Bill Curlee's niece.
Five of the Ringling officials were arrested and charges with involuntary manslaughter and given jail terms which they served less than a year. The circus paid 4 million dollars to the victim's families. The maximum accidental death benefit in Connecticut was $15,000. Bill Curlee's widow received the full $15,000, since he was young, healthy, educated and well employed." Others received $4,000 to $6,500. The most injured who spent months in the hospital received $75,000 to $100,000.
Excerpts from Edward Hoagland, Review of The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan, in the New York Times, and family recollections.