With a reporter’s eye, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, the acclaimed author of ten books, re-creates an unforgettable and horrific tragedy, the Great Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 that left 169 people dead and more than a thousand injured, almost all women and children. Their husband and fathers were off fighting with the Allied Army in Europe and the Naval forces in the Pacific. Smith tells, too, a moving story of two people whose lives were shaped by the tragedy. Margie Potter, the youngest survivor of the fire, will grow up unable to remember anything about the fire that took her mother’s life, destroyed her father, and left her with horrific burns. But at seventeen, she meets and marries Charlie O’Neill, a fireman, who was ten years old the summer of the fire. The terrifying memory has stayed in his mind so vividly that he can never forget it.
It was exactly a month after D-Day, and the excited crowd of 6,000 gathered for the matinee performance of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth to forget the war for a few hours and watch the Flying Wallendas navigate the high wire; laugh at the antics of Emmett Kelly, the most compelling clown ever; and watch in awe the circus’s four-hundred wild animals starring Gargantua, the Giant Gorilla. All was beyond thrilling under the Big Top—three city blocks long—until a pillar of flame shot up the side of the tent creating pandemonium. In the chaos that ensued, the Merle Evans Circus Band broke into “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” a song played only in the most dire emergencies to signal the Ringmaster to clear the tent. The musicians played until their red and gold jackets, and their hair, began to smolder. Then they ran for their lives amidst the stampede that was the panicked, hysterical audience.
The fireman and his wife, her back and shoulders covered with scars, including the thumbprint of whoever saved her, are determined to find out how the catastrophe could have happened. Was the fire an accident, or the work of an arsonist committing mass murder? Did the careless flip of a cigarette into the tent wall waterproofed with a mix of paraffin and gasoline ignite the fire, or was it the worst crime in Connecticut history? As Margie and Charlie become more and more obsessed with finding the truth, they unearth hidden secrets in each other’s lives that affect them with unmerciful consequences.