As some 9,000 people watched the Wallendas begin their high-wire act on July 6, 1944, a fire started on the sidewall of the big top at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of 6,000 gallons of white gasoline and 18,000 pounds of paraffin; common practice for circuses at the time. In minutes, the entire tent was engulfed in flames. In the rush for the exits, people were trampled and burned--some beyond recognition. In the end, 167 were dead and 487 injured, of whom 140 required hospitalization. The city of Hartford, Connecticut, would never be the same. Stewart O'Nan
brings his storytelling ability to the tragedy of The Circus Fire
Several survivors said the one thing they will never forget about the circus fire as long as they live is the sound of the animals as they burned alive. But there were no animals.
O'Nan interviewed dozens of witnesses and examined police reports, newspaper accounts, and court documents while researching the fire. The result is an engrossing--though agonizingly painful--account of the great fire and its aftermath. He probes the tragedy's enduring mysteries--How did the fire start? Who are the unidentified victims? Who is Little Miss 1565?--and offers up conclusions of his own. He also provides remarkable vignettes of panic, heroism, and grief: Merle Evans and the band playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the circus disaster march, over and over; Bill Curlee, standing atop the wild animal chute throwing trapped children to safety; the Cote sisters, who made it home safely then broke down when asked why they were back so early. O'Nan tells their stories with compassion--albeit with a slight tendency toward the macabre.
Moving, saddening, gruesome--yet car-crash compelling--The Circus Fire is a gripping read. Highly recommended. --Sunny Delaney
From Publishers Weekly
On July 6, 1944, the big top of the Ringling Bros. circus caught fire during an afternoon performance in Hartford, Conn., and quickly burned to the ground. One hundred and sixty-seven people were killedDmost of them women and childrenDand hundreds more wounded. When acclaimed novelist O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying, etc.) moved to Hartford 50 years later, he discovered that the town was still haunted by the tragedy. His history of the event is lyrical, gruesome and heartbreaking. At the heart of the narrative is O'Nan's harrowing, minute-by-minute account of the actual burning, during which nearly 9,000 people scrambled to escape through just seven exits. One boy saved himself (and hundreds of others) by cutting a hole in the tent wall with his fishing knife. Another man literally threw children to safety before losing his footing and perishing in the blaze. Above them, the tent canvas, which had been waterproofed with gasoline andn paraffin, "rained down like napalm" on the necks and shoulders of the fleeing crowd. By the end, O'Nan reports, the heat was so intense that people died not from smoke inhalation, as in most fires, but by being cooked alive. O'Nan goes on to describe the bleak days after the disaster, when local families set about the morbid task of identifying loved ones, often possible only by using dental records. He also chronicles the four decades of detective work that led to the identification (in error, O'Nan believes) of a little girl whose body originally went unclaimed. This moving elegy does tribute both to the terrible tragedy and to O'Nan's talent as a writer. B&w photos. (June)
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