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 burned.

Word of the tragedy reached Louise H. Burr, M.D. ’45, at Nick’s Restaurant, a popular student eatery on Congress Avenue where dinner could be had for less than 50 cents. “Joe Stanton, a classmate, and I decided that with so many casualties there would no doubt be a great need for people trained to do blood counts, give plasma infusions, etc.,” Burr wrote to her family a few days later.

“We hopped into a car, bringing our microscopes, blood-counting equipment and hematocrit tubes with us, and were off,” wrote Albert S. Atwood, M.D. ’45. The unsung hero of the adventure was Michael W. Lau, M.D. ’45, who had a Ford convertible and, more important, coupons for rationed wartime gasoline.

The students went first to Hartford Hospital, where they were shocked to find 40 doctors and residents lounging on the grass outside. Only a few patients had arrived and there was nothing for them to do, the doctors and residents told the students. They continued to the now-defunct Hartford Municipal Hospital. “We arrived there to confront total chaos,” wrote James D. Gardam, M.D. ’45. “Relatives, cops, spectators, newspeople, untreated patients waiting for assistance.”

Two students were assigned to each of the three floors handling burn victims. Atwood went to the fifth floor with Stanton, where “it looked as if all bedlam had broken loose. Nurses and nurses’ aides were everywhere, as well as bewildered parents.” Hospital staff assigned the students to check vital signs and administer parenteral fluids where needed. “It sounded very easy but we were soon to find that it was anything but that,” Atwood wrote.

Emergency-room doctors had applied pressure dressings to the burns, which blocked access to veins for injections and blood-pressure readings. “On only a few could we get blood pressures because practically all arms and legs were in plaster casts,” Burr wrote. “They had received the following treatment: morphine, tetanus shots, vaseline gauze with plaster casts (for pressure), plasma and, later, sulfa-diazine.”

At 1 a.m. the medical students were reassigned to assist staff members on the floors. They made rounds with the patients while hospital staff prescribed sulfa drugs and fluids. At 3:30 most of the hospital staff left, leaving the wards in the hands of the six students. “It was really amazing,” wrote Atwood, “for we couldn’t imagine anyone leaving their hospital floors in complete charge of strangers who said that they were medical students.”

Not all hospital staff left. Nurses and aides stayed, as did a doctor in industrial medicine at Colt Firearms Company. A Navy corpsman home on furlough who was helping out said nothing he had seen on Guadalcanal affected him as much as the fire victims.

Fortunately for the medical students, shortly before the hospital staff retired, nine classmates arrived to help. “We did blood counts, hematocrits, gave plasma and sulfa-diazine infusions, ordered oxygen tents, morphine and sponges,” Burr wrote. “It seemed as if most of our time was spent trying to get needles into tiny foot veins. Several of the children died during the night and that, of course, was heartbreaking.”

Orangeade, coffee, sandwiches and donuts kept the students going. “About 4 a.m. I began to get my second wind,” Burr wrote. “By eight o’clock I was feeling fine except for blurry eyes and an occasional feeling that I wanted to cry on somebody’s shoulder.”

The students left at 11 a.m. and took a detour to the scene of the fire before returning to New Haven. The fire’s final tally was 168 dead, with hundreds more injured. For years the cause of the fire remained the subject of speculation—a carelessly tossed cigarette, an electrical short-circuit—until in 1950 a man admitted to setting the fire. He later recanted, however, saying his confession was coerced. At the time five circus managers were charged with manslaughter and sent to prison. Ringling devoted its profits for the next 10 years to paying off claims from victims’ families.

“It was a tremendous experience,” Burr said during an interview 55 years later. “It made me feel good that we did it and were able to help. It made me glad that I decided to go into medicine.”

Gardam said two distinct lessons came out of the experience. “Never give up veinous access,” he said, “and have somebody in command.” YM

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