Capsule

A tragedy's medical aftermath

Sorting through her late father’s papers, the daughter of Albert S. Atwood, M.D. ’45, found a letter written shortly after the Hartford circus fire of 1944, in which 168 people died. Atwood and five med school classmates dropped everything and drove to Hartford to tend to the hundreds of burn victims. When his letter surfaced, Atwood’s classmates began exchanging reminiscences of the fire.

July 6, 1944, a month after D-Day: More than 6,000 people sat under the Ringling Brothers Circus big top in Hartford, waiting for the Flying Wallendas to begin their trapeze act. Lions, tigers and leopards had just leapt into their cages. Almost no one noticed the tiny flame that crept up a side wall in a corner of the tent. A policeman described it as no bigger than a cigarette burn until it burst into flame.The fire raced up the sides and along the top of the tent. Burning patches of canvas fell on the screaming spectators, who rushed in all directions looking for a way out. Within minutes, the tent was gone and hundreds of people lay piled on the ground, some dead, others dying, hundreds severely...

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