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The Circus Fire: A True Story Hardcover – June 20, 2000

4.4 out of 5 stars 131 customer reviews

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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)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (June 20, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385496842
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385496841
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (131 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #911,072 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. W. Rasband VINE VOICE on July 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Novelist O'Nan has written a piercing non-fiction account of the legendary Ringling Brothers Circus fire in Hartford, Conn. on July 6, 1944. 167 people died, the majority women and children. Because of the sheer horror of the event combined with the fact of violent deaths of families and dozens of small children, the story of the fire has taken on a mythic, almost Gothic quality. O'Nan sorts through all the legends surrounding the fire while still acknowlegding that mystery are at the heart of the event. Who started the fire? Was it the psychotic teenager who confessed years later? And what about the legend of the demented woman who pretended to be a doctor at a hospital where the victims were: she supposedly set the limbs of some of them so badly they had to be amputated--truth or fiction? There are accounts of human savagery as people clawed at each other to escape the burning big top. There are also stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. And very gruesome details of what fire does to the human body. Of course there is the story of Little Miss 1565, a small girl killed in the fire who had a mostly preserved face, and yet was never identified. O'Nan is drawn to extreme human situations in his fiction, but he has really done a fine thing with this true story. It will haunt you for days.
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Format: Paperback
I am sure that any decent writer who was willing to dig through the archives and old newspaper stories could have written a good book about the Hartford circus fire. For Stewart O'Nan however, that was not enough. He not only did the research that any author would do when writing about a historical event; he tracked down the survivors. That is what makes this book so good. The stories told by the survivors make the whole story much more personal and much more tragic. On top of all this, O'Nan's writing style is superb. As a novelist who usually deals in fiction he writes in a very engrossing manner that keeps the reader's interest from cover to cover.
The chapters are divided by dates and O'Nan takes each of the several families he follows in detail from their preparations for the circus to the very end. Whether that end is death or recovery we get the whole story. In this way the reader is able to connect in a personal way with the victims. If they escaped we find out how they got out. If they required hospitalization we get the story of their recovery. If they are killed we are taken through the identification process and some of the funerals. O'Nan even follows two of the survivors into their careers as firemen. The reader is also treated to the inner politics of the Ringling family and the power struggle after the fire. Along the way we meet circus people who were indeed negligent, politicians who struggled to cover their own negligence, nurses, doctors, and lots of policemen. We also meet many heroes; many of them policemen and firemen just like on 9/11. O'Nan spares no detail but he never gets boring. The reader will also get a good feel for 1944. The circus was short on workers because of the war. Hartford's residents were prospering because of the war industries.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This account of a ghastly event is extremely well researched and written. There is no hyperbole, no wringing of hands. The author simply lets the story tell itself through those who were there, for the most part.
Here is but a single stunning example, from p.109: "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." How much more effective that is, as prose, than the alternative method of saying the same thing.
Stories of individual selfishness and total selflessness abound, as they do in an accurate account of any great tragedy. The author does not omit either, so that the reader comes away with a feel for what it must have been like that hot July afternoon in Hartford, one month after D-Day.
I had misgivings about how well this could be told, before I read the book. Not now. I'd recommend this to any circus fan, to anyone who wants to read something really well written and thoroughly researched.
My only criticism is that the photos, many taken by amateurs, to be sure, are not well produced. I like the fact that they are on the pages where they fit, but in doing this on regular paper, details and drams are lost.
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By A Customer on June 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If you grew up in Connecticut, you probably heard stories about the Hartford Circus Fire. On July 6, 1944 a fire broke out during a matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, 167 people were killed (mostly women and children). The fire is etched into the memory of the people of Connecticut and survivors still feel the physical and emotional effects of the blaze.
The Circus Fire, by Stewart O'Nan not only provides the facts about the fire but also brings to life the people who were forever changed by the events of that tragic day.
"At Saint Francis Hospital, a six-year old visited his mother for the first time since the fire. The mother had crawled on top of her son as the flames rolled over them. It worked; the boy was only slightly burned. The mother was in serious condition, but she would live."
"In Hartford, a trible funeral of one mother and her two sons drew a crowd..Her husband didn't attend; he'd collapsed upon hearing the news and was in seclusion."
O'Nan conducted extensive interviews with survivors and has done an excellent job telling their stories. The 1944 fire was as devasting to Hartford as the bombing in Oklahoman City. Everyone in the community knew someone who was killed or injured in the blaze. While the story of the fire is fascinating, the memories of the survivors make the book unique.
You do not have to love history or be a circus buff to enjoy this book. I highly recommend it.
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