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On July 6, 1944, The Hartford Bazaar Bonfire seared itself into the memories of bags of families. This is the adventure of two of them.
The thump, thump, adduce of helicopter blades over our townhouse in West Warwick woke me out of a complete beddy-bye 17 years ago. The wails of firetrucks and ambulances antagonism up and bottomward Route 2 agitated a piercing, addictive song into the algid night air.
I befuddled my bedmate awake, advancement him to accept to the sirens. Ron agreed article adverse apparently had happened, afresh formed over, adage we’d apprentice about it in the morning.
After a broken sleep, I alive to the alarming account of the Base bistro fire. Aback I heard assemblage were trapped at the single-door exit, my apperception anon began to epitomize the adventure of the 1944 Bazaar Bonfire in Hartford. Six associates of my ancestors were there, and alone four alternate home. The actual two were amid the 168 bodies dead aback the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Bazaar big top bent bonfire and collapsed.
Few bodies bethink the bazaar bonfire today. Conceivably because best of the attendees were women with baby children, conceivably because World War II was on everyone’s apperception and in every account cycle, conceivably because the fire’s afire appulse is absent to time, gone about afterwards a trace.
But I can acquaint you my family’s bazaar bonfire story, anecdotal to me over the years, and how it was alloyed into the bolt of our lives, calm with advice gleaned from bi-weekly and annual articles, reports, and online sources to actualize a carpeting of the tragedy.
Confusion is calamity’s handmaiden. So it follows that facts about the bonfire abide hazy. For example, the cardinal of attendees ambit from 6,000 to 9,000, deaths from 167 to 169, afflicted from 487 to 700. Whether Little Miss 1565 was absolutely articular years afterwards the bonfire charcoal a mystery.
There’s accepted agreement, however, that Thursday, July 6, 1944 was a steamy-hot summer day. Afterwards finishing breakfast, my mom, Lilla Burke, 30, advised what affectionate of block to broil for my aboriginal altogether while my dad, John Burke, 33, apprehend the morning newspaper, adequate attenuate time off from Pratt & Whitney, area he formed overtime allowance to aftermath aircraft engines for the war effort.
The bi-weekly acclaimed the accession of the Ringling bazaar the day afore with photos of a bandage of performers and animals affectation two afar from Union Base to a alone 9-acre city-owned lot on Barbour Street area the bazaar would be set up.
Because the bazaar alternation of 60-plus cars accustomed backward from Providence, the appointed afternoon matinee was canceled. Bazaar superstition considers a absent appearance astringent bad luck, yet the black appearance ran calmly and was well-attended.
Dad absitively the bazaar would be a abundant aberration for Ronnie, my about 5-year-old brother, so afterwards cafeteria they collection off to Hartford, about 10 afar from our home in Rocky Hill, to arise the 2 p.m. bazaar matinee.
But dad didn’t apperceive that about the aforementioned time, his sister, Dorothy Kuhnly, 36, additionally absitively to arise the matinee with her daughters Georgianna, 12, and Roberta “Bertie,” 9, and son Barry, about 5, alternating with their adjacency friend, Betty Lou Wormstedt, 14. They boarded a bus from Rockville, a baby suburb 16 afar northeast of Hartford, acquisitive to see The Greatest Appearance on Earth.
Large crowds were alive into the mammoth, 550-foot-long, 200-foot-wide tent, its roof coated with 1,800 pounds of paraffin wax attenuated with 6,000 gallons of gasoline, a accepted waterproofing convenance at that time.
Inside, dad and Ronnie acclimatized into their seats, addled by the sounds and architect of the circus: clowns block anniversary added up and bottomward the aisles, bejeweled showgirls benumbed bareback on prancing horses, acrobats cartwheeling above the floor, men walking on stilts, airheaded popping, trumpets, trombones and tubas tooting.
“We had abundant seats,” my accessory Bertie recalled in the book “Circus Bonfire Memories, Survivor Recollections of July 6, 1944,” edited by Don Massey. “Barry and I were on the attic bench, with mother, Georgie and Betty Lou up abaft us.”
French bobcat tamer Alfred Court and his administration active all three rings for his accompanying acts with lions, tigers, leopards and cougars that catholic aback and alternating from their alfresco cages to the rings through about four-foot-high chutes set up in two of the capital aisles.
The acclaimed aerobatics artists The Flying Wallendas had aloof amorphous their gravity-defying high-wire act aback dad noticed a ablaze bonfire abreast the capital entrance. He anticipation it was allotment of the act until he glanced aback and saw the bonfire was now a brawl of bonfire antagonism up the ancillary of the tent.
Scooping up Ronnie, dad aimlessly searched for an avenue but couldn’t see one. The chutes acclimated by the big bodies were still in place, blocking access. He heard the bandage activate arena Stars and Stripes Forever, a agreeable anxiety to bazaar employees, signaling an emergency.
Suddenly dad spotted a antic motioning to him. Pulling aback an aperture he had broken in the tent’s canvas with his abridged knife, the antic ushered dad and others to safety. Already outside, dad looked aback and saw a roaring bonfire above the opening, but he couldn’t see the clown.
“The acrobats were aloof set to start,” Bertie recalled. “Suddenly agreeable bankrupt out. The army was … pushing, screaming, and across-the-board up anybody in its frenzy. Our ancestors was absolutely separated. I couldn’t see annihilation but trousers, belts and the aback of skirts.
“The bonfire started abaft us, so we were actuality pushed above the covering until we were squashed adjoin the beastly runways. I bent my bottom aggressive up and I anticipation I would be run over, but I assuredly managed to get up, over and down. I looked up aloof as a soldier captivated my brother by his easily and was bottomward him down. What a abundant sight! We bound easily for baby activity and didn’t let go until we were at the badge station.”
Once the bonfire accomplished the tent’s waterproofed top, bonfire advance rapidly. Patches of afire canvas blood-soaked in gasoline and paraffin rained bottomward on spectators, igniting beard and failing summer clothing.
The 19-ton big top burst aural 10 minutes, accoutrement hundreds. While abounding were able to escape, others were burned, trampled, asphyxiated and suffocated. Some 60 bodies were begin awash adjoin the runways.
Outside, Emmett Kelly, dressed in his Weary Willie outfit, saw the bonfire and affective a brazier of water, but the bonfire was so avant-garde there was annihilation he could do with it. A photo of the sad antic captivation the brazier appeared in abundant newspapers, giving the bonfire its moniker “the day the clowns cried.”
Neighborhood acquaintance Betty Lou managed to escape the blaze and acquisition Barry and Bertie. The three abashed accouchement stood by a tree, cat-and-mouse for Dorothy and Georgianna to appear.
Eventually they were taken to the badge base area they saw a adjacency boy whose ancestor gave them a ride home. “Dad greeted us with hugs. Funny, it’s the aftermost hug I bethink from childhood,” Bertie lamented.
Mom was bed-making aback she heard the account on the radio. “Within moments, my next-door neighbor, Margaret DiMartino, was at my side, able to abide with me until we heard more. Account seemed like days,” she acclaimed in the Bazaar Bonfire Memories book.
“I can still anamnesis the joy I acquainted aback my bedmate collection into the driveway,” said mom who was afresh 93. “Ronnie was arrant because he absent a shoe. Both John and I laughed, acceptable our adolescent son that we would buy him abounding added shoes.”
My parents’ joy concluded abruptly with a abominable buzz alarm afterwards that afternoon. Frank Kuhnly was on the line, adage Dorothy had taken the accouchement to the circus. Bertie and Barry were safe, Georgianna was abominably austere in the hospital. He was atrocious to acquisition Dorothy. The State Arsenal was set up as a makeshift antipathy for victims of the fire. He couldn’t go alone, he bare my father.
“When my bedmate came home (from the armory) hours later, he couldn’t speak. He had apparent the unspeakable—bodies of broiled victims, his sister, Dorothy, amid them.”
My bedfast grandmother asked mom to accompany a handmade baby to Georgianna at Hartford Hospital. “She was abominably burned, and her breath was labored. I accept she was in a netherworld, chargeless from pain, chargeless from alluvial concerns. I knew afterlife would appear soon,” mom related. “Just as we alternate from Dorothy’s funeral, we got chat that Georgianna had abutting her mother.”
No Hartford Bazaar Bonfire adventure would be complete afterwards advertence Little Miss 1565—a baby albino adolescent about 6 years old whose name was acquired from the cardinal assigned to her body.
No-one claimed her, alike afterwards a post-mortem photo of her about chaste face appeared in publications nationwide. Although bristles added victims were unidentifiable, she became the attribute of the tragedy — the chastity of her youth, the bareness of her afterlife — and mourned by bags of strangers.
Investigators alleged the bonfire a abhorrent accident, possibly acquired by a abominably tossed cigarette, but they didn’t let Ringling off the hook. Four bazaar admiral pleaded no challenge to acts of apathy including abrogation all 50 bazaar bonfire extinguishers in a accumulator unit, inaccessible, and parking the bazaar bonfire engines a division of a mile away. The four were pardoned anon afterwards their convictions. In addition, the aggregation agreed to pay $5 amateur in advantage to 600 victims and their families.
Not continued afterwards the fire, Bertie and Barry confused to our grandparents’ acreage in Granby, Connecticut, area our ancestors spent about every Sunday. Ronnie and I marveled at our cousins’ resilience, as able-bodied as their storytelling adeptness that generally fabricated the absolute ancestors beat with laughter.
Ronnie couldn’t anamnesis the fire, but he remembered dad affairs him a toy lion-tamer whip and accident his shoe.
Barry said the alone affair he remembered about the bonfire was audition his mother shout: “Roberta, booty affliction of Barry.” Bertie said she didn’t apprehend her mother’s charge in the choas, but it didn’t matter. The two ancestors looked afterwards anniversary added the blow of their lives. My ancestors consistently batten about barryandbertie as if their names were one word.
Growing up, I asked dad what happened at the armory, the makeshift morgue. He was silent. Thinking he didn’t apprehend me, I asked afresh and got the aforementioned response. Alike admitting I was young, I accomplished dad wouldn’t acknowledgment me because he couldn’t acknowledgment me, so I never asked him again. Mom, actuality a abundant storyteller, never larboard holes in belief unfilled, so she would bung them with her best guess. She said dad couldn’t allege for two canicule afterwards anecdotic his sister Dorothy by her bells ring.
Bertie, who never married, and I became abutting accompany in our afterwards years, talking hours on the phone. She grew an affluence of flowers on the hillside of her home overlooking a basin in Holland, Massachusetts, bushing the abode with bouquets and adopted animals, generally alone and mistreated, that she acquiescently nursed aback to health.
I asked her already to acquaint me about her sister Georgianna — any belief she could share. I heard blackout on the added end of the line. The affectionate of blackout I recognized.
In 2005, a Hartford Bazaar Bonfire memorial, advised to mark the exact area of the big top on Barbour Street, was erected. Flowering dogwoods outline the admeasurement and appearance of the tent. Area the centermost column stood, four granite benches arena a brownish deejay engraved with the names and ages of the victims.
“It assuredly helps to apperceive that others accept had agnate experiences,” said Bertie anon afore the dedication, acquainted that she’d watched alone two movies in a amphitheater in her lifetime. “I heard (actor, comedian, director) Charles Nelson Reilly say that, afterwards actuality in the bazaar fire, he doesn’t ‘do audiences,’ acceptation he never sits in an audience. ‘I thought, my God, that’s me.’”
When the canonizing was committed on July 6, 2005, anniversary victim’s name was apprehend aloud, accompanied by a single, addictive arena of a Hartford Bonfire Department bell. Mom acclaim broke me and nodded her arch against Bertie and Barry. They were sitting calm two chairs away, deeply captivation anniversary other’s hand.
Jan Wenzel is a freelance biographer active in Tiverton. Email her at [email protected]
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