In 1945, James A. Haley was imprisoned for his role in a fire that killed 168.
By HOWARD ALTMAN
The Tampa Tribune
October 22, 2012
TAMPA --Bob Sawallesh figures he has spent thousands of hours over the years helping patients at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital.
He has driven them to appointments, interviewed homeless veterans to help them get assistance and worked with the wounded and their families.
But in all that time, the retired Army lieutenant colonel from Valrico never saw a picture of the hospital's namesake prominently displayed.
Curious, Sawallesh began to look into Haley. Always interested in research, he spent hours in front of the computer, in dusty library stacks and going through boxes of documents.
What he found spurred him to ask that the hospital's name be changed.
In 1945, Haley was sent to prison for what prosecutors say was his role in one of the worst fires in the nation's history – a blaze at a Ringling Bros. circus show in Hartford, Conn., that killed 168 and injured nearly 500 others.
"How can you name a hospital that treats severely burned combat veterans after a man who spent time in jail for a fire that killed so many?" Sawallesh asked.
* * * * *
Johnny Meah was 7 and living in Bristol, Conn., when his mother bought a pair of tickets to the circus from a department store. He remembers being excited on the bus ride that he would see the clowns and animals and acrobats under the massive Big Top tent.
It was July 6, 1944.
"I never forgot that day," said Meah, now 75 and living in Safety Harbor.
Just before 2 p.m., Meah and his mother, Anne Meah, settled into their reserved seats – folding chairs on large wooden planks. The crowd numbered about 9,000.
About 20 minutes into the show, as the famous Wallenda family was about to ascend the high wire, "There seemed to be some commotion near the main entrance on the opposite side of the tent," Meah said. "It was evident there was some kind of fire, but people were not terribly concerned. They thought it was some kind of clown gag."
"That perception," Meah said, "did not last long."
As the fire quickly spread, some circus-goers rushed for the track between the seats and the performance area, Meah said. Others jumped to the ground behind the reserved seats, only to find there was nowhere to run.
Many of those who made it to the track found exits blocked by animal cages.
"A lot of casualties occurred there," he said.
Meah remembers looking down at the track, "filled with screaming, scrambling people." A man sitting next to him kicked down a railing and Meah and his mother jumped about 4 feet to the ground.
Pushed along by the frantic crowd, the pair made it out a back door. They ran through a small wooded area to a city maintenance yard, where the survivors fell down a sand pit to safety.
"I turned around and the whole big top was gone," Meah said. "It was just a sheet of flame."
At the top of a small rise, Meah said, his mother found a phone booth. She called her husband, a cartoonist at The Bristol Press.
"That is how, I am told, the whole circus fire story got out to the AP wires," Meah said.