Authorities exhumed the bodies Monday of two victims of the 1944 Hartford circus fire in hopes of identifying one of the last five people still listed as missing after the tragedy.
The exhumations at Northwood Cemetery in Windsor, Connecticut, occurred about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the site of the big top fire that killed 168 people and injured 682 others.
Forensic experts at the Connecticut chief medical examiner’s office will try to determine whether one of the two unidentified women was 47-year-old Grace Fifield, of Newport, Vermont, who was never seen again after attending the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on July 6, 1944.
Officials will compare DNA samples taken from the remains to samples provided by Fifield’s granddaughter, Sandra Sumrow. A message seeking comment was left for Sumrow on Monday.
Fifield is one of five people still listed as missing — and the same number of unidentified victims are buried at Northwood Cemetery. Testing is needed to conclusively identify them.
Only two of them could possibly be Fifield — women buried under markers as 2109 and 4512, the case numbers assigned by the Hartford County coroner.
“One of the key questions that medicolegal investigators want to answer in any death investigation is, who are you?” said Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner. “Properly identifying remains has important legal ramifications, but the most important reason is to confirm the identity for the next of kin.”
The skeletal remains of the two victims were in cement vaults, Gill said. Experts will conduct dental and anthropological examinations of the remains before DNA tests are performed.
The DNA testing could take weeks or months, depending on the condition of the DNA from the remains, Gill said.
A state judge approved the exhumations last month, at the request of Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy.
Police blocked Northwood Cemetery’s main entrance Monday, and authorities set up black screens around the grave sites.
Patricia Congelosi, 82, who lives next to the cemetery, watched the work from her backyard. She said she was supposed to have gone to the circus the day of the fire, but her father said it was too hot, and the family went to the beach instead.
“If they can identify them and the family can find some closure, it’s good,” said Congelosi, who was 7 at the time of the fire. “I don’t know why it took so long.”
The circus fire spread quickly and was fueled by a mixture of gasoline and paraffin wax that was used to waterproof the tent.
The cause has never been officially determined. Some authorities suspected a cigarette was to blame.
In 1991, officials identified a young fire victim buried at the same Connecticut cemetery as 8-year-old Eleanor Emily Cook. Her body was exhumed and reburied in Southampton, Massachusetts, next to her 6-year-old brother, who also died in the fire.