1991-1999

That July, Lynne Tuohy's “Eternal Flame” piece for the Sunday Courant's Northeast magazine collected the memories of circus fire survivors for the first time. With the interest stirred up by the 1565 case, she had her pick of stories. Emmett Kelly lugging the bucket made the cover. Inside, Spencer Torell's shot of the tent burning earned a two-page spread. And after forty-seven years, the paper finally ran the cub photographer's shot of the dead piled by the grandstand rail. The interviews were compelling, and the manner in which Tuohy intercut them satisfying.

New York publishers approached her, asking if she'd thought of writing a book, but by then, emotionally, she'd gotten too close and given too much. She'd just finished another intense piece for the anniversary, a feature on Raymond Erickson; his sister Joann still had his shoes and socks. At that point, Lynne Tuohy needed a break. And anyway, Rick Davey was putting together a book, and she considered it his story.

Later in the year, Yale University Press released the first important book on the disaster, Henry Cohn and David Bollier's The Great Hartford-Circus Fire. An examination of the arbitration agreement, it followed Rogin, Schatz and Weinstein through the convoluted process of setting up and then executing the receivership. Cohn and Bollier had done their homework, and the results were fascinating legal scholarship.

Playwright Anne Pié explored a more personal side of the fire in her drama Front Street, a nostalgic look at an Italian family from the neighborhood where Thomas Barber first walked a beat. In the play, the youngest son goes to the matinee and the family doesn't know what's happened to him. Pié was eleven at the time of the fire and lived next to Northwood Cemetery. That afternoon she and her friends heard sirens and saw the sky over Keney Park fill with black smoke; Monday they attended the mass burial. When a producer in L.A. did a staged reading of Front Street, a woman he didn't know got up and walked out of the theater. When he saw her at another reading, he asked why she'd left toward the end of the second act. She told him she'd been in the bleachers the day of the fire and the play evoked such an emotional response that she started to cry.

By now the FBI had given up their plan of interrogating Segee. The state police reopened the case, but Davey and Goodrow, both with the city, were officially not involved. For political reasons, the state called it a reex-amination rather than a reinvestigation. The case had low priority Davey had planned on going to Ohio and speaking with Segee—it was going to be a chapter in his book—but since the state didn't consider this a criminal investigation, they told him no.

While Davey was sure Segee was guilty, and Goodrow strongly suspected it, in lieu of new evidence all they had was mere suspicion, not probable cause. The only thing new they'd turned up since the original investigation in 1944 was the fact that a cigarette wouldn't have caught the grass on fire that day. They'd moved the point of origin, but that was it.

The media hassled Segee, knocking on his door, shining their lights in his eyes. He'd gone gray, and his place was decorated in an American Indian motif. “I'm telling you the truth, I did not set that fire,” he said. “I'm not guilty of the charges, but nobody ever believed me.”

Then why did he confess?

“If you was hassled as much as I was, you'd tell them anything to get them off your back.”

In March 1993, the state police sent two men out to Columbus to talk to Segee—the first time Connecticut had access to him. He'd moved since the news broke. They found him living with his daughter in a poor part of town. His hair was long and he wore a headband. They interviewed him at his kitchen table with his daughter present.

Segee said his name was Chief Black Raven and that he was a shaman. He talked and talked. They asked him point blank if he'd set the fire. He denied it. He'd gone to see The Four Feathers and when he came back on the bus the tent was down. His foreman with the light crew didn't like him and he became a suspect.

He explained the Circleville convictions as politically motivated; the sheriff was trying to get reelected and was related to the judge. They'd interrogated him nonstop for twenty-four hours. He agreed to what they said because he wanted to rest. They didn't want the truth because he was an Indian, and different. Segee said he was between two cultures and that when the Ohio police interviewed him they brainwashed him and muddled up his mind. He was of two realities now, one being the white man and one the Indian. When he made his statements back in 1950, he was either brainwashed or insane.

When the detectives asked him how someone might have set the tent on fire, Segee said someone could have used a mirror or a magnifying glass to set the grass on fire. He had visions of the fire, but he had so many vision quests that he had a hard time separating reality and fantasy. He was telling the truth, he said. He had to make peace with his spirit Wonka Tonka. Now he'd told the truth and made peace. Last night he had a vision quest of his own death, and it was a good quest, and he did not start the Hartford circus fire.

The men returned to Hartford with nothing concrete on Segee. With no further evidence, there was no arson. The cause remained “undetermined.”

• • •

In January 1994, echoing a scene from The Greatest Show on Earth, a Ringling Bros. train derailed near Lakeland, Florida. A witness observed the train go by and saw two pieces of a wheel fly off a passenger car and land in the nearby woods. The train continued nearly three miles, across five grade crossings, before it slipped off the rails. Two circus workers died. In Hartford, people remarked that it was a strange way to start the fire's fiftieth anniversary year.

Popular author Mary-Ann Tirone Smith timed it right, releasing her novel Masters of Illusion in June. Subtitled A Novel of the Connecticut Circus Fire, it followed the family life and loves of a woman who'd survived the fire as a child, the fingerprints of her rescuer seared into her back. The heroine marries a firefighter who, like Rick Davey, becomes obsessed with the mysteries of the fire. The author said she based her main character on a friend of a cousin—Barbara Smith. At one local reading, Rick Davey—supposedly still working on his own book—sat in the front row with a lawyer by his side.

The fire department marked the fiftieth anniversary with a ceremony at the Wish School. It was Captain Charles Teale's idea. Since he was a child, he'd listened to his grandmother's stories of the fire. He couldn't imagine the anniversary passing without some commemoration, so he asked the chief if he could organize an official gathering of survivors—in his spare time, of course. Teale wanted something small and intimate, but the media discovered his plan, and the weekend before the 6th, the Courant did a big spread on it.

Teale sent out invitations to special guests. Two couldn't make it: Lynne Tuohy, up in New Hampshire on an assignment, and Mildred Cook, who thanked him in a letter. “Transportation might be a problem,” she wrote, “but I would not care to attend anyway—there are too many painful memories connected with July 6th.”

More than two hundred others showed up. It was a hot, humid day, and survivors made nervous jokes about how the air felt the same. Few had been back to Barbour Street. Over the years the neighborhood, like Hartford, had changed. Stowe Village was drug-infested, a place where carjackings and drive-by shootings happened; that day police swept the projects, arresting fourteen members of the 20 Love gang. Teale thought some people stayed away not because of bad memories but the place's new reputation.

Outside, camera crews caught the early birds. Some stood in the grass out back, pointing to where the big top had been, and where they'd made their escape. People brought their crumbling newspapers and programs and ticket stubs. They hadn't forgotten; they'd been saving them all along.

The ceremonies were supposed to start at 2:00, with a moment of silence scheduled for the exact time of the fire, but emcee Charles Teale couldn't get the survivors to stop talking among themselves, and soon he didn't want to. People were amazed there were so many left. No one wore name tags, making everyone a surprise. Barbara and Mary Kay Smith came, and Jerry LeVasseur, and Donald Anderson. Jennie Heiser was there, and Bill Cieri, Judy Lowe subbing for her late husband. Retired chief John Stewart felt doubly obligated to come. People thanked Captain Teale with tears in their eyes.

The air-conditioning broke down, and the auditorium was stuffy. Katherine Martin remarked that the weather was tough on her; her scarred skin didn't exchange heat well. Ladder Company 3 solved the problem, setting up smoke ejectors and blowing air through the open doors.

A TV crew finishing an interview up front delayed the program, but finally Teale got things under way. A piper played, former fireman and mayor Mike Peters spoke, as well as survivor and Lieutenant Governor Eunice Groark. The fire department presented a plaque to the Wish School's principal. It read: “In loving memory of those who perished on this location 50 years ago, July 6, 1944, and with heartfelt condolences to their survivors.” Charles Teale had chosen those words; years later he could repeat them by heart.

“Those people,” he said, “they made me want to cry, each and every one of them. I wasn't really up to the task emotionally of putting this thing together, but I'm glad I did.”

After the program, Rick Davey gave his slide show and answered questions. He didn't come right out and say Segee did it, but survivors could tell he was carefully dancing around it.

When the ceremony finally broke up, Charles Teale drove Jennie Heiser back to her retirement village at Avery Heights. He would continue to visit her for years. He would also pay his respects to the dead at the grounds and at Northwood every anniversary, putting on his dress uniform and bringing flowers from his garden.

That afternoon, while the survivors reminisced, the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. show paused during their matinee in Old Saybrook at 2:44 and observed a moment of silence. At the end of the tribute, the announcer gravely listed new fire safety laws and emergency medical procedures that had improved conditions since 1944.

In Las Vegas, the Greatest Show on Earth had the day off.

• • •

In August of 1997, as if connected, both Robert Segee and Mildred Cook died, their brief notoriety and fame largely forgotten. Lynne Tuohy, though, remembered Mildred Cook, and wrote a moving tribute to her. In Columbus, where Robert Segee had lived for more than forty years, he didn't even rate an obituary in the paper. In Hartford, the Courant missed his death completely.

• • •

At this writing, Ringling is poised to open their first American show under a top in more than forty years—the one-ring Barnum's Kaleidoscape. While Ringling's Gold Unit briefly toured Japan with a tent in the late eighties, other troupes have played here under vinyl for decades without mishap, the two largest being Carson & Barnes and old favorite Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Whether Connecticut will allow the new and nostalgic Kaleidoscape near Hartford isn't certain. In 1996 the state fire marshal closed down the Royal Hanneford Circus in Newington minutes before showtime because their tent failed a laboratory burn test. The Shriners, who'd hired the circus, lost thousands of dollars.

Hartford has changed drastically since 1944. G. Fox sits empty, as do hundreds of buildings throughout the inner city. On Washington Street, blocks from Bull Hickey's old headquarters, signs on telephone poles warn drivers that cars stopped to solicit prostitution will be seized. The signs are wrong, neighbors say; the prostitutes have moved and the crack dealers rule the corners.

Since the fiftieth anniversary, the press hasn't bothered with the fire, some Julys letting the anniversary slide by without comment. But people like Charles Teale still bring flowers to the graves; survivors still finger their curled newspapers.

The Connecticut State Library sees a few researchers every year, leafing through Hickey's and Healy's brittle reports. The boxes are filled with lists and horrible photos, paper clips bleeding rust. In a tiny manila envelope stapled to Trooper Francis Whelan's notes, the nickel Felix Adler gave him as a souvenir waits, an extra treat.

The Circus World Museum in the Ringlings' adopted hometown of Baraboo, Wisconsin, has more: three chairs from the fire donated by a good friend of Merle Evans. Their paint is blackened and cracked like desert mud, the undercolors of earlier seasons peeking through the tomato soup red: a milky orange, a dull sea green. The library there also has three pages of sheet music from “The Changing of the Guard,” the theme for the closing spec that season, its edges burned black, singed thin. Their collection of rolling stock boasts a number of cage wagons that survived both Cleveland and Hartford, and the flatcars they came in on. The crown jewels though, are Mack water truck 132/133, which fought the fire, and the red and yellow ticket wagons that sat in the front yard. In summer the museum hauls in a solid crowd; tourists fill the parking lots and flock to two shows daily, beaming under the big top, reveling in the circus as it was meant to be.

The Wish School—like the transplanted barracks and Stowe Village—is supposed to be haunted. Water faucets turn on and off by themselves, followed by the diminishing patter of feet. In summer, laughter echoes through the empty halls, and the bright piping of a calliope.

Municipal Hospital, renamed McCook, closed decades ago. Now its buildings are home to the Burgdorf Health Center.

The armory houses the city's minor-league basketball team, the Connecticut Pride. The lobby where parents gave their children's names has a ticket window, and upstairs, purple bleachers line the court on the drill floor. High in the girders, leaking Mylar balloons nudge the ceiling. When I visited, a power forward was out on the court, alone with a coach, working on his moves. “No,” the coach said, “see, that's just what you're doing.”

While the rest of the world forgets, the circus fire remains the property of the survivors. To this day, Timothy Burns of South Windsor carries a small pocket knife. At his father's wake, he slipped his dad's knife into his jacket pocket, as if he might use it in another life. Frances Cook has the little beaded purse she carried that day; Harry Lichtenbaum of Wethersfield keeps a bag of peanuts.

Eunice Groark speaks for many when she says, “I guess the one indelible imprint I have is that fire is something one should respect. Make sure wherever it is that you go that there are ways of getting out.” Survivors staying in hotels take rooms on the lower floors and count the doors to the fire exits; in nightclubs they search for red exit signs. Some are still queasy in crowds, like Charles Nelson Reilly: “To this day, I am never comfortable being a member of the audience.” Others are claustrophobic, and can't ride elevators or stand CAT scans.

Their aversion to flames makes them brick up fireplaces and distrust candles. Harriet Globman says it drives her crazy to see people toss away a burning cigarette; she'll go out of her way to stomp it out. If another woman hears fire trucks converging, she'll drive the opposite direction, no matter where she's headed.

Lorna Hastings still goes around the house checking for fire whenever she thinks she smells something burning. For years she wouldn't turn the heater on in her car and dreaded the arrival of winter. Her children tired of her endless fire drills.

Most won't stand under a tent, even at a wedding; they'll wait outside. Others won't watch a circus on TV, or shiver when they hear circus music. Forget “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Just writing about the fire makes you look at your loved ones differently, memorizing not their features but their teeth. Lynne Tuohy says she knows every inch of her kids' bodies.

The most common sentiment about the fire I heard from survivors was that it was something they'd never forget as long as they lived. Some still wake up screaming, fifty-five years later. Nightmares were said to have plagued Mayor Mortensen until his death in 1990. Nurse's aide Eileen Fitzgerald Hennessy's memories have the same intensity: “What I tell you is fact, like it was yesterday. You think it goes away. It does not go away.”

In 1969, Emmett Kelly said, “I think of it, it's like a movie running in my mind. I try to forget it. I don't like to talk too much about it.”

Dorothy Bocek Strzemieczny, who lost her sister Stella Marcovicz and nephew Francis, describes the effect Mildred Cook knew well and Don Cook knows today: “Through the years you kind of forget about it. You do but you don't really. We try not to think too much about it.”

Life and time don't stop. People carry on somehow, learn to endure. As Elliott Smith says with pride, “I'm not a victim, I'm a survivor.” That in itself is inspiring, a lesson to take away.

As for the mysteries of the circus fire—the missing and unidentified, the possibility of arson—they will probably always be mysteries, unsolved and unredeemed. Likewise, the desire to make sense of what happened, to find some justice and peace of mind by ordering and documenting the events, will always tempt us. But the fire is not that kind of story. Look close and it breaks up, it falls apart. As Joann Bowman wrote to me of her brother Raymond Erickson, “Sometimes you just don't know.”

That is not to say there is nothing we can do for the dead or their families. All stories teach us something, and promise us something, whether they're true or invented, legend or fact. The reason 1565 and Thomas Barber stood in for the whole story of the circus fire for so many years is no mistake, and no slight to those who survived, though it must have seemed that way sometimes. To be lost and forgotten—to be abandoned—is a shared and terrible fear, just as our fondest hope, as we grow older, is that we might leave some part of us behind in the hearts of those we love and in that way live on. Perhaps, in the end, we will not be lost. In that respect, she has received the only gift we can give her, a gift we wish desperately for our loved ones, a gift we all want, finally: to be remembered.

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