Historical Hartford circus fire 75 years later: Dolores’ story

Hartford

HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH)–Saturday, July 6 marks 75 years since the deadly circus fire in Hartford. Nearly 170 people perished when fire broke out during a matinee performance. Thousands were in attendance.

“We barely made it out, I mean we were very, very lucky,” Dolores DiFazio of Wethersfield said.

At the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford on July 6, 1944, the lions had just performed, and 8-year-old Dolores DiFazio was sitting in a folding chair in the middle of the big tent. She was with her mom and brother.

Dolores recalled the event to News 8, “All of sudden, someone yelled ‘fire’ and it was a small patch near the front entrance.”

Like many, they headed towards the front entrance. Then, her brother made a call that saved their lives.

“He said, ‘don’t go that way…follow me.’ So we went up to the top and he said ‘you’re going to have to jump down’, so my mother took my hand and we both jumped down. I understand it’s 12 feet.”

Dolores still remembers escaping, coming out and running towards the woods.

“It was totally ablaze,” Dolores added.

Dolores’ 13-year-old brother, Alex Sicilia, didn’t jump with his family.

Alex decided to hold the tent to help people roll down and escape, Dolores explained. Alex told them knew he it would be time to leave once he saw embers falling down.

Alex passed away last year. He’s credited with helping others escape.

Dolores added that the back of the tent was not accessible because the circus animals and their cages were blocking it.

The big tent had been covered in paraffin wax, thinned with gasoline. It was a popular waterproofing method at the time. Nearly 170 people lay dead after the quick-moving fire was extinguished. Circus officials were ultimately cited for negligence.

The cause was never clear, but the fire was possibly started by a tossed cigarette.

“I never went to a circus after that,” Dolores said. “I don’t think there were many after that.”

Dolores said she is forever changed by the tragedy.

“After having an experience like that, I do look for exits, especially when I’m with my little grandchildren,” she said.

She also spent a career giving mack to her community in Wethersfield as a preschool teacher.

“If I was saved I wanted to do the best I could and to be good to everybody,” Dolores said.

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