Historical Hartford circus fire 75 years later: Arlene’s story


HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — It’s known as one of the worst tragedies in Connecticut history; The Hartford circus fire killed nearly 170 people 75 years ago.

A tragedy of unthinkable proportions that changed Connecticut law for the better. Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of the circus fire in Hartford. Nearly 170 were killed in minutes, mostly women and children. Thousands were in attendance, and few survivors are left.

“When we walked around before the circus, the animals in the cages and it was so hot. I felt so sorry for them,” Arlene Carlson, survivor. “Because of the polio scare, we weren’t allowed to go to to public places.”

It was a big deal. Arlene Carlson lived through the tragic events of July 6, 1944 with what she calls “a kid’s mind.”

“I see a flame on a sidewall of a tent.”

Her memory comes together the moment she saw flames directly across from where she was sitting with her older sisters and toddler niece.

“My sister just said, ‘Let’s go.’ Some people were saying they’ll stay behind to put it out.

Like so many others, they pushed folding chairs out of the way and headed towards the entrance, but her sister urged them to turn around and go up instead.

“We stepped on top of the animal cages and went out the exit. And as the three or four of us were gathering together, we turned around and saw the tent collapse.”

The big tent had been covered in paraffin wax thinned with gasoline, a popular waterproofing method of the time. It turned deadly. Within ten minutes, the tent collapsed, killing nearly 170 mostly women and children trapped inside.

“Had we gone down, we might have been on the bottom of the pile there because that’s where people got trapped.”

All that’s left here at the site of the fire is a memorial that was put up fourteen years ago. This year will mark the first time Arlene comes back to this site since that horrific day 75 years ago.

“For years, I didn’t have any connection with it. I realize now my parents didn’t let us read the paper.”

The cause of the fire remains a mystery. It was possibly started by a tossed cigarette, but Arlene’s ‘kid’s mind’ came up with its own explanation.

“My theory afterwards was that the sun on those glass cages set it on fire, like it was a magnifying glass.”

It took decades for Arlene to realize she survived one of the worst tragedies in Connecticut history.

“I do watch for exits and I don’t like going to circuses.”

It’s still hard for her to believe what happen in the moments after she escaped because back then, she was thinking like an 11-year-old.


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