Hot Topic

John Gregory Dunne, who died two weeks ago, reviewed Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire in the July 17, 2000, issue of The New Yorker.

Here are some excerpts from that review:

The fire that consumed the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944, was one of the worst American disasters, a catastrophe that claimed a hundred and sixty-eight lives, the same number of people killed in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It is also one of the least documented.


The fire's victim's were almost all women and children; since the fire broke out at a matinée, and since absenteeism was not countenanced in the government-regulated defense industry, fewer than twenty of the dead were males over the age of fifteen.... There was not a single loss to asphyxiation; the dead were either burned to death or fatally trampled in a mad rush for the exits. Death certificate after death certificate, O'Nan says, read, "Fourth-degree burns, trauma to head and torso, or a combination of the two." The heat was so intense that "it literally cooked people." Body fat burned like gasoline, and many of the dead were reduced to "gelatin" or "black Jello-O." Scorched disconnected limbs littered the ashes as if they were embers. The skull of one boy, O'Nan writes, was cracked "like a boiled egg left too long in the pot, his brain sticking out through the fissures." Fire had sucked the eyes from a woman in her fifties and burned off her right forearm; the heat had also annealed to her stomach the three-year-old girl she was carrying.

After a few initial, and largely unsatisfactory, hearings, there was little serious examination of the blaze for nearly forty years. How the fire started and who or what might have been culpable were questions that remained unanswered.


The paucity of information about the fire was especially perplexing to me because I am an interested party. My younger brother, Stephen, who was eight, was at the circus that day, along with two friends, Ted and David Johnson, seven and five, respectively, the three of them under the watchful eye of the Johnsons' widowed mother Marion. My father was chief of the surgical service at St. Francis Hospital, where dozens of the injured and dying were sent, and he was on emergency duty deep into that evening. My brother Nick was home on post-basic-training leave before shipping out to France and the war; Nick, only eighteen, spent much of that afternoon driving Marion Johnson from hospital to hospital as she searched for her son Ted, who had become separated from her in the panic inside the Big Top. That Ted might be dead went unspoken. While my mother waited inside by the telephone, I played catch with myself in the side yard at my house: bounce a tennis ball off the chimney, catch it in my baseball glove, throw it again, and try not to listen to the distant symphony of sirens in the background.


Marion Johnson was sitting across the oval from the spot where the fire started. She was one of my mother's closest friends, a bridge partner, and, as I remember her, a handsome, correct woman of considerable steel, a single mother before that term became a cliché. Marion glimpsed the fire, gathered her sons and my brother Stephen, and headed for an exit. An usher tried to stop her, and she told him in no uncertain terms, according to Ted Johnson, that she was leaving. Throughout the tent, panic was setting in. The path toward the exit where Marion was heading was blocked by one of the animal chutes -- what Ted described to me as a "longitudinal cage." The only way over the chute was via five wooden stairs a yard wide. Several of the big cats were still in the chute, leaping, clawing, and hissing at the terrified people jamming the narrow passage overhead. As the crowd surged toward these stairs, Ted was wrenched from his mother's grasp and swallowed in the throng. Marion handed Stephen and her son David to a man on the far side of the walkway, who then pulled her across. By now, the stairs were so blocked that people were pulling themselves across the horizontal bars, oblivious of the lions snapping at them; attendants with prods tried to hold the fleeing at bay until the cats were out of the chute....

At the exit by the second animal chute, the situation was the same: adults handed children across until they were overcome by the smoke and heat or crushed in the press of flesh. When the fire cooled, scores of scorched and contorted bodies were found stacked against these metal chutes. Everyone had a metaphor for the inferno: it burned like cellophane, tissue paper, a sheet of newspaper, a Roman candle; it looked like a grass fire, a haystack fire, a giant orange wave. With the exits blocked, people searched for other ways out; some lowered themselves between the seats, dropping to the circus floor, where they crawled under the tent. Others jumped from the top of the grandstand, many breaking legs and ankles; as they lay helpless on the ground, they became cushions for other jumpers. A boy with a pocketknife hacked a hole through the tent wall that became an escape route; a soft-drink vender smashed a bottle of Coca-Cola on the bleachers and used the broken edge to cut another hole through the canvas. Not everyone behaved this well. A sailor punched a woman in the jaw for blocking his way, and the brawny knocked aside the scrawny; some grabbed chairs ... and swung them into the crowd "like machetes" to clear a path to an exit.

Finally, at 2:44 p.m., nine minutes after the fire was first sighted, someone turned in a fire alarm. Ten fire companies sped to Barbour Street, only to find circus elephants blocking their way. Even had the fire department been immediately on the scene, it is unlikely that it could have prevented the Big Top from becoming a charnel house; firemen first had to lay a thousand feet of hose, snaking it through the stunned and milling crowds to get to the fiery remains of the tent. The dead were everywhere, black and featureless, human in shape but often minus faces and missing hands and feet.


Hours later, Ted Johnson had found himself dazed and unharmed in the pandemonium outside the tent. "I have no memory how I got separated," he told me this spring, when we spoke at length about the fire. "I have no memory how I got out." He reckoned the time from losing his grip on Marion's hand to finding safety outside as between eight and ten minutes.


O'Nan's book is grisly, scary, and horrifying, but, then, so was the event it so effectively re-creates. For those even minimally involved, every disaster is ultimately personal, every family has its own story. My brother Nick returned to his unit the day after the fire and shipped out to Europe, where, still in his teens, he was decorated for valor. Stephen died at forty-three; his widow said he never went to a movie without first checking where the exits were, and he always insisted on sitting in an aisle seat. He and I shared a bedroom throughout our childhood, and were as close as tree and bark, but he never spoke about what happened that day on Barbour Street. After Ted Johnson and I talked this spring, he sent me a diagram of the Big Top and its three rings, including the animal chute, and indicated where in the grandstand he, his family, and Stephen had been sitting. While most of his memories are lucid and exact, those eight or ten minutes between the time he was separated from his mother and the time he found himself outside the tent remain a blank -- eloquent testimony to just how awful that July afternoon in 1944 remains to him, fifty-six years after the fact.