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1944 Hartford Circus Fire Remembrance

By Pauline Slopek

July 6, 1944 dawned as a beautiful, very hot, summer day. My twin sister Charlene and I were so excited because our parents were taking us to see the circus. Our three month old sister Marcia was to stay with a family friend and her two young children were to come with us. We, the twins were almost seven years old.

It was wartime and my dad had the day off from United Aircraft. To even think of using gasoline to drive to Middletown to Hartford and back clearly showed us what a special day it was for us.

Once in Hartford, my dad parked the car and we all walked over to the circus grounds. I remember it being very hot and very dusty and that we walked by a truck with buckets along the side.

We went inside and took our seats way up in the bleachers in what I now know was the Southwest side of the tent within sight of an exit. We were four or five rows from the top of the tent so that we could see really well. Along side of the area we were sitting was a section of wounded servicemen, each with an attendant.

The band started playing and the circus animals started doing their act. Where we were sitting we could see the left ring very well--the center ring some what and the last ring, just barely. (The circus band was all the way down past the last ring.) The cats had finished in our area and the flying trapeze artists had started their ascent to the top of the tent when we turned around due to a bad smell to see that the whole back of the tent behind us was in flames. The fire was burning really fast and heading towards the top of the tent. My dad said we had to leave very quickly. I turned around to move and ran smack into my friendís head. Both of us ended up with major bumps on our heads. My dad grabbed the two friends and me and started down the bleachers. My mom, who was bringing down my twin, yelled to him that my sister wasnít moving very well (she had been overcome by heat and smoke.) Dad told her to drop her between the bleachers and he caught her. He hustled us four children out of the same exit we had just come in and told us to stay together in one place. There were people running in every direction. He turned to go back for my mother who was making her own way out of the tent alone with no one walking around her. Dad and I saw her coming through an exit and he pulled her to where we were then hustled us all across the street.

We stopped at a house briefly where I saw a man bleeding badly from having fallen onto a Coke bottle when he jumped down between the bleachers as we were walking out of the tent. The homeowner was trying to help him stop the bleeding by wrapping his arm in a towel.

My dad made the decision to get us out of town. He somehow was able to get the car out of where it was parked. As we drove away we could see the elephants walking in a line, each holding on to the tail in front of him. Dad drove very fast back toward Middletown where we lived. I remember being scared because he was driving so fast. Unbeknownst to us my mom was badly burned and dad knew she needed medical attention. I honestly believed he hoped to get stopped by the police so that he could get help for my mom and to tell what happened. He got to Middletown, stopped at the police station and told them about the fire. He then dropped all of us children at their friendís house where my baby sister was and drove my mom to the hospital. He was treated for minor burns on his arms, but she was admitted. Due to the severity of her burns she was hospitalized for quite a while. My grandmother came to stay to take care of all of us. She was with us for quite a while, as after mom got out of the hospital she could not hold my baby sister for the longest time due to the burns.

Mom had skin grafts on her arm due to third degree burns and was told to bowl as part of her physical therapy so as not to lose the use of her arm. She bowled for many, many years. The sight of her badly scarred arm was a reminder of that day for the rest of our lives. The burns on the top of her head amazed us as she always wore a hat when dressed up . She had worn a hat made of straw that day -- the hat was nor burnt but her scalp was due to the terrible heat generated by the fire. We use to rub oil on her head, but Iím not sure why.

I recollect it was Middletown Day at the circus, although I never quite knew what that meant. Charlene and I were students at St. Johnís RC school in Middletown. The little girl who sat in front of me at the circus died. Her name was Agnes Norris and she, along with her sister and parents, perished that day. Mary Kay Smith was also in my class and she, along with her sister, were badly burned but they did survive.

We finally figured out many years later that my need to sit at the end of a row and not far from an exit was due to my being involved in the circus fire. The need to always be able to find an exit and get out has never left me. I never went to the circus again until I was twenty years old and that was in Madison Square garden, which I felt would not burn down.

We lived in the South Farms area of Middletown.

Those who survived that day were:

  • William and Alice Tibbals
  • Twins Charlene and Paula Tibbals
  • And our two little friends whose names I donít remember
  • Per a news article, two friends were Betty Lou and Jimmy Mokoski
In remembrance, Pauline Tibbals Slopek

1944 Hartford Circus Fire Related Links

Read the Front Page of The East Hampton News with extensive coverage of the fire

Read page 8 of The East Hampton News with extensive coverage of the fire
(The article on page 8 in the upper left hand corner is about the Tibbals' family in the fire.
The article mistakeny printed one of the twins name as "Caroline" instead of "Charlene.)

The Day the Clowns Cried

Man Confesses to Setting Circus Fire

Photos Taken During the Circus Fire

Photo of new memorial dedicated to those that perished in the fire