CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It is said to be one of the worst fires in U.S. history.
At least 168 people killed, 68 of them kids.
It happened almost 75 years ago and to this day a handful of victims have never been identified.
Now a Charlotte woman is trying to change that.
“I was so so excited, the greatest show on earth!"
It was July 6, 1944, and more than 7,000 people were crowded under the big top tent for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut.
Stanley Frank was there that day with his family.
“Then all of a sudden somebody yelled fire!”
“It is the 75th anniversary of the Hartford Barnum and Bailey Circus fire which was horrific,” Sandy Sumrow said.
A massive fire spread through the tent.
“It was pretty horrific.”
More than 700 people were hurt.
“Everybody was trampled, just locked in.”
At least 168 people died.
“Many of them were women and children. My grandmother was one of them.”
The 62-year-old Sumrow lives in Charlotte. She never met her grandmother, Grace Fifield, who had taken two of her three kids to the circus that day.
The kids survived but Fifield is believed to be one of a handful of circus fire victims never identified.
Sumrow has been curious ever since her mother first mentioned the tragedy decades ago.
“I probably learned about it when I was 10 laying on bed with her and she started talking about it. She said I want to tell you what happened to your grandmother. I don’t really know what happened to my mother, still a little bit of a mystery. She apparently was a victim in this horrific tent fire."
Now with the 75th anniversary of the fire, there’s a push to exhume the still unidentified victims’ bodies.
Sumrow plans to give her DNA to Connecticut authorities in hopes of solving this decades-old mystery. Her mother never knew what happened to her mother.
“She also said to me, 'I’ve always thought maybe she had amnesia, left the family. I always wondered if she's really dead.'”
Sumrow's mother died a few years ago, but still, she’s hoping the DNA will bring closure to a longstanding family mystery.
“It’s a closure for my mother more than me.”
Frank said his mother is the reason his family managed to get out safe.
“She’d seen there was a big opening in the tent."
An opening that meant their survival.
Sumrow said she is ready to donate her DNA but a judge is holding up the case. He needs to rule that it’s ok to exhume the bodies.
For now, Sumrow and the other victims' families continue to wait.