Still Seeking Answers: Family Hopes to Exhume Unidentified Victims of Hartford Circus Fire

Sandy Sumrow is hoping modern DNA technology might finally give her family answers about what happened to her grandmother, Grace Fifield

On July 6, 1944, thousands of people came to Hartford for the event of the summer – the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

The events of that day became one of the deadliest tragedies in the city’s history.

Saturday is the 75th anniversary of the Hartford Circus Fire. There were 168 people killed that day, and five lost in the fire were never identified.

Now, with modern DNA technology, a family whose grandmother disappeared that day may finally get answers about what happened to her.

Ilene Frank is the chief curator of the Connecticut Historical Society and an expert on the fire.

It was a hot, muggy day and 7,000 people crowded underneath the tent to see the show. It was a matinee, the lions the opening act. As the trapeze artists flew through the air, something went horribly wrong.

“The circus orchestra switched to playing…Stars and Stripes Forever which was the code that there was something disastrous happening,” Frank said.

“The big tent caught on fire,” she explained. “Animals in their cages were already being moved into position and so they ended up blocking the exits.”

The tent, coated in a mixture of paraffin wax and gasoline, a water-proofing technique at the time, was devoured by flames within 10 minutes.

“There are lots of reports of people having to slash through the canvas to make their own way out and adults pulling people through these holes,” Frank said.

There were hundreds of people injured and 168 people died.

“The armory which is downtown was used as the morgue and so people had to go and walk through and try to identify their loved ones,” Frank said.

Two of the bodies pulled out of the rubble were Leslie Choquette’s grandmother and grandfather.

“My grandfather, a very tall man, took my mother, they were working their way down they were by the animal shoot, took my mother told her to remain very stiff and he was going to push her over into whatever it took get back and run so that's what happened,” she said.

“The last thing that my mother got to hear her father-- my grandfather Frank say is ‘once I push you out of here you keep running and don't look back.’”

At the Circus Fire Memorial in the North End of Hartford, trees line the spot where the tent stood. There, Choquette explained how her grandfather, a Simsbury volunteer firefighter, saved her mother and aunt. It was his first and last act of duty.

“My mother never got over feeling guilty that she survived and her mother and father did not,” Choquette said.

Not everyone tracked down the date of their loved ones in the aftermath of the fire.

“There are still are people who were unidentified and bodies that were never matched to individuals,” said Sandy Sumrow of Charlotte, North Carolina. “My grandmother is one of them.”

Sumrow’s grandmother, Grace Fifield, was last seen at the circus that day, but her body was never found.

Now 75 years later, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner wants to exhume the two female bodies of the five who remain nameless to compare Sumrow’s DNA to the remains, and hopefully give her answers.

“It's a closure for my mother. More than it is for me,” Somrow explained.

The case to exhume the bodies is working itself through the courts now.

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