Remembering the Horror and Heroes of a Circus Fire Maureen Krekian was 11 when a fire ripped through the circus she was attending in Hartford, Conn. Thanks to a stranger's quick thinking, she was able to escape one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history.
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Remembering the Horror and Heroes of a Circus Fire

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Remembering the Horror and Heroes of a Circus Fire

Remembering the Horror and Heroes of a Circus Fire

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Time now for StoryCorps, the project that's traveling the country recording your stories.

On this summer day in 1944, a circus in Hartford, Connecticut, went up in flames. Nearly 9,000 people had crowded under the big top that day. Shortly after the show began, the tent caught fire. It had been waterproofed with a mixture of gasoline and wax, causing the big top to be completely consumed in less than 10 minutes.

That fire claimed 167 lives - over a third of them children - and became one of the nation's deadliest ever. Maureen Krekian was at the circus that day.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: Hartford, this afternoon, suffered one of the greatest catastrophes in its history. And during a matinee performance of Ringling Brothers' Barnum & Bailey Circus, the big tent suddenly burst into flames and burned to the ground.

Ms. MAUREEN KREKIAN: It was 1944, July the sixth, a very hot day. I was 11 years old. I was supposed to go to the circus with the lady next door and her daughter. I went and knocked on the door and they weren't there. They had already left without me. Now, I had never been to the circus before and there was no way that I was going to go home and tell my grandmother that I was alone. That would never have been permitted. So I just ran up the street and went to the circus by myself.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: The Flying Wallendas, the world-famous aerial act, were performing on their trapezes when the fire broke.

Ms. KREKIAN: I remember somebody yelling and seeing a big ball of fire near the top of the tent, and this ball of fire just got bigger and bigger and bigger.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: An eyewitness told us that it appeared almost like spontaneous combustion, so quickly was the big tent a mass of flames.

Ms. KREKIAN: By that time, everybody was panicking. The exit was blocked with the cages that the animals were brought in and out with. And there was a man taking kids and flinging them up and over that cage to get them out.

I was sitting up probably halfway up on the bleachers and jumped down. You jumped down, it was all straw underneath. And there was a young man, a kid. He had a pocket knife, and he slit the tent, took my arm and pulled me out. And then I turned around and grabbed a kid - it was a little girl - and pulled her out.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: The bleachers were burned to a crisp. Sixty bodies were removed from that spot alone.

Ms. KREKIAN: My uncle was out in the backyard of our home. We lived on the same street as where the circus was held. And he was sawing wood. And he saw the reflection of the fire in his saw. He went running around trying to find me, and of course he couldn't get anywhere near it by that time.

(Soundbite of recording of newscast)

Unidentified Man: Parents and relatives were standing about, not knowing what had become of their families.

Ms. KREKIAN: I came running out from the circus tent all the way home. But I can still see my uncle. He was so mad. You know how you get when you have a child and you think they're lost and you want to kill them and kiss them at the same time.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: The spot where the tent had been was a charred mess of poles and wires.

Ms. KREKIAN: The circus never came back to Hartford until the '70s. And then they never came back in those tents again. But I've never had a desire to go.

MONTAGNE: What if that boy heard this interview? What would you like to say to him?

Ms. KREKIAN: Oh, I'd throw my arms around him and thank him. I wouldn't be 74 years old today. I'd be long gone.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: It's a tragedy Hartford will never forget and everyone in Hartford hopes will never be repeated.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Maureen Krekian remembering the Hartford circus fire of 1944, with her daughters Lynn and Joanne. The newscast you heard was from WTIC radio in Hartford. This interview will be archived with all StoryCorps interviews at the Library of Congress. Subscribe to the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org.

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