Tuesday marked the solemn anniversary of one of Hartford’s largest tragedies. On July 6, 1944 the Hartford Circus fire claimed the lives of 168 people.
While the fire transpired nearly eight decades ago, 90-year old Harry Lichtenbaum remembers it like yesterday.
“It’s right in my head. I was 13 at the time,” he said.
Lichtenbaum remembers being excited that day. It was his first circus. He says his tickets were for the day before, but when that matinee was canceled, he and many others attend the next day.
Upon entering the big tent with his older sister, Lichtenbaum says he couldn’t see from his original seats and decided to relocate, which he says was a fateful move.
“It was the will of God that we moved believe me. Because that was the area where a lot of people perished."
Standing on the very ground where the fire took place, Hartford fire officials were joined Tuesday by several survivors of the fire. Together, they prayed at the memorial monument, reflecting on a very dark day in Hartford’s history.
The fire happened during a matinee showing of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. People, eager to see the greatest show on earth, had traveled to Connecticut’s capital city.
“At 2 o’clock there are about 7,000 people who are gathered at the circus grounds to go under the big tent and to see the circus,” said Connecticut Historical Society Chief Curator Ilene Frank.
Tragically, not long into the performance, fire began to engulf the tent. The blaze was accelerated by what was then a common but flammable, waterproofing material made of paraffin wax and gasoline.
“It just led to a really awful, awful scene,” said Frank. “By most reports a tent was completely gone within 10 minutes.”
168 people died. That includes five people whose bodies have never been identified, despite DNA testing in 2020. Those lives lost were remembered Tuesday in a solemn ceremony. Some survivors recounted their memories.
“My cousin Eddie said look and looking at the top of the tent where he pointed there was a circle of scorch,” said Henry Savin of New London, who was 5 at the time.
Donalda Matthews of Coventry was 15 and recalls escaping the fire.
“Everybody just kind of jumped up and started running,” Mathews said, explaining a relative cut a hole in the tent so they could escape.
Interim Hartford Fire Chief Rodney Barco led the ceremony, recalling the lives lost.
“Anytime we can do anything to relieve some of the pain or memory for our citizens we will definitely do that,” said Barco.
Barco addressed the survivors and family members of victims, explaining their loved ones will never be forgotten.
“The victims and the survivors and the surviving family members, it’s always with them. We can’t ever bring our loved ones back," added Barco.
For those wishing to learn more or pay respects, the Hartford Circus memorial monument is located directly behind Fred D. Wish School on Hartford’s Barbour Street.