75 Years Later: Community Gathers to Remember Hartford Circus Fire

On this day in 1944, thousands of people came to Hartford for the event of the summer: The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

But what happened at the circus led to one of the darkest days in the city’s history.

NBC Connecticut

168 people died in a fire at the circus. Saturday, July 6, 75-years later, the victims were remembered.

The Hartford Fire Department hosted the 75th anniversary remembrance ceremony at the memorial for the lives lost off of Barbour Street.

The center of the memorial is right where the center ring was and the trees mark the perimeter of the big top.

Much like this afternoon, July 6, 1944 was picture perfect in Hartford.

“The sky was blue. The sun was where it’s supposed to be,” survivor Nancy Spada, who lived in Hartford at the time, said. She was 10-years-old. “Everything was absolutely in technicolor and then the fire started. Everything turned black.”

A beautiful day at the circus turned to terror.

“The ashes. The people running around. They all looked, I hate to say it gray. Children crying. It was so sad,” Spada said, who vividly remembers how nervous she was waiting for her father to return from running back in to the fire to help. “I waited and waited and waited and he finally came back and it was like I told somebody like John Wayne coming up over a hull, my hero.”

Community members admired the first engine to respond to the fire while reflecting on safety changes made throughout our country sparked because of the tragedy.

“Code enforcement from places of public servant perspective, totally different today than it was back then. That’s probably the biggest outcome that came out of one of the worst fires in American history,” Hartford Fire Chief Reginald Freeman said.

The fire changed lives in our community then and now.

“On my birthday I think about it more than any other time, who survived and who didn’t and I’m a survivor,” explained Frank Strano, who was celebrating his third birthday at the circus. He remembers, “Lions and Roger cages, eye level and as were walking by and my mother has my wrist so tight dragging me.”

78 years old today, Strano remembers those who didn’t survive.

“I put my rose on a three-year-old, that’s how old I was when I came here.”

Strano said his family never spoke of that difficult day.

To that same point, he and Spada have known each other for a long time, but only recently found out they were both survivors.

They’re grateful the community came together to remember the tragedy.

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