HARTFORD, Conn. – Ground was broken Tuesday for a memorial to the 168 people killed and 700 injured by a fire that engulfed a circus tent 60 years ago.
Hundreds of survivors and relatives of the victims gathered for the ceremony as children released balloons to represent each of the dead.
"I think the releasing of the balloons did a lot for me. Maybe it was closure, I don't know, but it helped," said Jim Murphy, 60, of New Britain (search). Murphy lost his father and brother in the fire, and his mother died two days later.
The big top held 6,000 people, mostly women and children, for a matinee performance by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (search) on July 6, 1944.
The canvas had been waterproofed with 1,800 pounds of paraffin thinned with 6,000 gallons of gasoline and the tent burned quickly, giving the audience little time to escape.
In the panic to flee, some people fell and were trampled. Most victims were found piled up near an exit blocked by animal cages.
State police reopened the investigation in 1991 to determine whether arson was involved, but eventually reclassified the cause of the fire as undetermined.
The memorial, at the spot where the center ring stood, will have the names of those who died etched in stone and will include pedestrian pathways lined with plaques and bricks carrying messages from victims' families, survivors and other contributors.
John W. Conlon, now 65, and his mother were hospitalized for five months following the blaze. He said he often thinks of a man who drove him, then only 5, and his mother to the hospital.
"All I know is that it was a black pickup truck. That's what he was driving," Conlon said. "I would really like to thank him."
The Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation (search) raised more than $100,000 for the project.