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Possible to ID victims in ’44 circus fire


Sunday, April 07, 2019

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut’s medical examiner is seeking to exhume two female bodies found after the 1944 Hartford circus fire in an attempt to identify at least one of them.

Chief State Medical Examiner James Gill told The Hartford Courant he is hoping modern DNA testing can put a name to unidentified remains buried under markers as 2109 and 4512, the case numbers assigned by the Hartford County Coroner in the aftermath of the fire.

Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy filed a motion Friday on Gill’s behalf for a court order to allow the bodies to be exhumed.

Grace Fifield, of Newport, Vt., is among those who were listed as missing after the July 6, 1944, fire at Ringling Brothers Circus, which killed 168 people and left 682 injured.

Her granddaughter, Sandra Sumrow, has provided a DNA sample to assist in the investigation.

“We have seen this in recent mass disasters, including 9/11, in which most of the identifications were done by DNA,” Gill told The Courant. “Therefore, when we heard from a family member of one of the missing victims from the circus fire, we realized that we now may have the tools to answer this question for them and provide closure.”

Gill said he is hoping to obtain viable DNA samples from the remains, either through teeth or their femur bones, which are most likely to have survived 75 years in the ground, to compare with Sumrow’s. He said he also may submit the DNA profiles he obtains to the many private genealogy database companies to see if some anyone trying to trace their family’s history might be a relative.

Sumrow, who now lives in North Carolina, told the Courant her mother, who has since passed away, always held out hope that the then 47-year-old Fifield survived the fire.

“My mom wondered if, silly me, she had found another life elsewhere and was still alive, but I’m sure that’s not the case,” she said. “It was very difficult for her because she had no closure.”

Fifield is one of five people still listed as missing from the circus fire. There are two children on the list, Raymond Erickson and Judy Norris, who were both 6 years old. Norris attended the circus with her twin sister Agnes and their parents, who were identified among the dead.

Erickson apparently survived the fire, but went missing after being brought to a local hospital, where his socks were later found.

Five bodies were never identified. Those, which include the two Gill wants to exhume, are buried in a cemetery on the Hartford-Windsor town line.