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Amherst woman recalls her harrowing escape from a deadly Hartford circus fire

Time has blurred a few details, but many images are still seared into the memory of Edith Lefkin Block of Amherst, who was 10 when she escaped the tragic circus fire in Hartford, Conn., that killed 167 people.

She can still see the yellow dress with tiny flowers that her mother was wearing when Edith spotted her in the crowd after they were separated.

She can still feel the cooling ointment applied to her burned arms at a drugstore near the circus grounds.

And most of all, she remembers the distinctive hairdo – but not the face – of the elderly lady who saved her life in a split second when panic swept the crowd.

The Hartford Circus Fire was one of the worst mass casualty fires ever in the United States, killing 21 more people than the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and 72 more than the Our Lady of the Angels school fire in Chicago in 1958. The Cleveland Hill school fire 10 years later in Cheektowaga, considered one of the worst tragedies to happen in Western New York, claimed 15 lives.

Block, now 80, was born in Hartford, her parents’ youngest child. Her father died when she was 4. On the date of the fire, July 6, 1944, Edith was living with her maternal grandmother; her bachelor uncle; her widowed mother, Ida Lefkin; and her siblings: Albert, 18, who was home briefly after basic training in the Navy; Lillian, 17; and Marion, 15. Because her mother couldn’t afford tickets, her daughter had never been to a circus. But a friend who got free tickets for purchasing a war bond gave four to Block’s mother.

It was 88 degrees and humid on that Thursday when about 8,700 people, mostly women and children, packed the large canvas tent, 450 feet long and 200 feet wide, for the 2 p.m. matinee of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

When a fire – the cause of which is still officially undetermined – broke out on one side of the tent, it raced up the canvas, which had been waterproofed with a flammable mixture of paraffin and gasoline. After a precious few seconds’ delay while the fire blossomed, the crowd panicked and raced for the exits.

Edith was sitting in the bleachers about 4 to 6 feet above ground level with her mother, her sister Marion, and younger cousin Marlene Katz, about 9.

In his book, “The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy,” for which he interviewed Block, author Stewart O’Nan wrote, “A vendor went through the aisles waving a fistful of paper fans, chanting, ‘It’s going to get hotter and hotter.’ ” Members of the Wallenda family stepped out onto the high wire.

“We had just bought bottles of Coke,” said Block as she sat with her husband, Arthur, in her neat Amherst home. “My grandmother was at home, and my mother said, ‘Let’s buy a fan and take it to her.’ So we had the fans, and all hell broke loose.”

Only the crowd’s reaction alerted the family to the sudden peril.

“I never saw the fire until I was outside looking back,” said Block.

But suddenly everybody was up and moving. “Everybody just went into sheer panic,” said Block. Her mother said nothing but jumped to her feet, and when Edith did, too, she said, “I fell underneath.”

In his book, O’Nan described the rickety bleachers: “There was no flooring, and they had to climb from seat to seat, carefully placing their feet on the narrow boards, pushing off and catching their balance like the Wallendas.”

After falling into the open space in front of her bleacher seat, Block said, “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘OK, let me see how I can get out of here,’ and I couldn’t. Then this angel from heaven came. It was like she was just there. She grabbed me by my hand and yanked me out.”

“For a long time I could picture her face, and now I can’t anymore, but I can still picture her hairdo,” said Block. “Those were the days when gray-haired ladies went into the beauty parlor and they put bluing in their hair, and she had a lot of waves with this bluing in it. She saw me there, I couldn’t get out, and she gave me a yank, and she took off. That woman saved my life. I wish I had known who she was.”

Block turned to the right, where she could see daylight through an exit in the massive tent. In the surging crowd in front of her, Block’s mother had just realized that her daughter was not behind her and turned around when Block reached her.

Block will never forget that image of seeing her mother in the crowd. She said, “I often have told my husband that I would always recognize the print of the dress that my mother had on. It was yellow and it had tiny flowers in it, a cotton dress.”

But as she moved toward the exit, the waves of searing heat began to burn her lower arms. “On my right arm, it was like somebody took a ruler,” Block said, miming a striking movement. “The skin began to peel in strips, with blisters. You can still see the scars.”

The air, shimmering with heat, also burned her mother’s arms from the elbows up. Block’s cousin Marlene was not hurt. And her sister Marion broke away from the group and ran to their uncle’s soda shop, about two blocks away, “to get the uncle to come and help.”

Although dozens of people were trampled – the bodies of some piled up at exits that were partially blocked by animal chutes – Block didn’t see anybody fall, and the family escaped through the tent’s open exit. Once outside, “I looked back and saw the fire from the big top, the big top was burning, and people were walking and running away. There was thick black smoke.”

Behind them, the entire canvas tent flamed and then fell in. The openings in the canvas – some slashed by men and boys with pocket knives to allow escape – showed a bright wall of fire dancing inside.

Block, her mother and cousin trudged among the survivors, heading home. On the way, they stopped at Jaivin’s Drugstore, where they had often visited the soda fountain. Today, though, the drug store workers were applying A and D ointment to people’s burns.

“I thought, I did get a gift,” said Block, recalling the relief on her raw skin.

“It was utter chaos in the streets” as they walked, Block recalled. “There were police and firemen from every small town around.” Along the route, her sister rejoined them, and they made their way home.

Block’s next memory is of being in her home, sitting on the floor reading the newspaper. Although she was calm, she said, “my uncle and my grandmother were all very upset at the sight of me.”

Block’s older siblings came home, each with a story.

Lillian, 17, had a job at a department store downtown, where she was working on the first floor near an open door. When Lillian heard the sirens and someone said, “The big top is on fire,” her sister bolted for home. “She just told them she was going,” said Block. “That sort of thing happened all over the city, and if it was held against anybody, it would have been a sin.”

Block’s brother, Albert, 18, ran all the way to the circus grounds to find his family. “He asked a cop if he could go in, and when the cop said, ‘No you can’t,’ He just hit him and knocked him out.” When he returned home after searching the circus grounds, her brother, too, was shocked at the burns his mother and little sister had suffered.

“He said to my mother, ‘I’m going to find a way to get you to the hospital,’” said Block. But the streets were clogged with cars and people. “My mother said, ‘I’m not going to go, you just take Edie and go.’ We started to walk, and we got to the end of the block and he found somebody that he knew who drove us there.”

At Memorial Hospital, hundreds of injured people were being treated. “I saw terrible things there,” said Block, shaking her head. “But then, on the other hand, I realized how lucky I was, because I saw such terrible things. I began to realize in the hospital the magnitude of the tragedy. Compared to most of the people there, I was in good shape.”

Doctors there dressed her burns, but Block didn’t mention that she had also sprained her ankle in the escape. “So consequently I have a weak ankle, and I have sprained it since,” she said. A dime-size bald spot on her scalp persisted for years before finally fading.

“I had to go to the doctor every night the whole summer,” Block said. “They changed the dressing, put more salve on it, and they had my arm in a sling for a while. We didn’t have a car and I had to walk to the doctor, and as I would walk I’d hear people say, ‘Oh, that little girl must have been in the circus fire.’”

Victims and survivors joined an arbitration agreement setting monetary awards for deaths and injuries. Block’s small settlement gave her “enough money to go away to college for a year.”

By the time she was ready for college, Block’s sister Lillian had moved to Buffalo with her husband, Nathan Slonim, to operate a carpet company, and Block moved here to attend the University of Buffalo. One day while sitting in the student union, she was introduced to Arthur Block, the man she would marry.

“When you stop and think about it, that one year’s worth of school brought her to Buffalo,” said Arthur Block, who worked as a podiatrist and later managed small credit unions. In September, they will celebrate 60 years of marriage. They have three daughters and five grandchildren.

The experience of the circus fire haunts Block to this day.

“Even though she’s a wonderful cook and baker, and everyone knows a gas stove is so much better, she would never go anywhere near a gas stove,” said Arthur Block.

“To this day, when I go to any event, I say, ‘Where are the exits?’ ” Block said. “And everybody should know where the exits are when they go to the movies, Kleinhans, or anywhere they go.”

The sound of sirens “nearly paralyzes me,” she said, because she heard many on that horrible day.

But she has attended the circus with her grandchildren. At the Hamburg Fairgrounds, the family even sat on bleachers to see the Shrine Circus.

Author O’Nan interviewed Block for his book. He said that although some of the survivors had already told their stories to Lynne Tuohy of the Hartford Courant for a series of articles she wrote in 1991, “many others were telling them for the first time, including some whose families simply didn’t discuss what happened that day. For many families it was taboo, though the physical scars were obvious.”

During O’Nan’s interviews, he said, “There were a fair amount of tears, and some folks were still angry something like that could happen. After the book came out, I did a ton of library readings and even some One Book events around Hartford, and more survivors felt comfortable telling their stories. But, as with war vets, some still haven’t, and some never will.”

Block was one of the survivors who became emotional during her talk with O’Nan.

“He was very easy to talk to, and at one point I burst out crying, I don’t remember why,” she said. “I apologized, and he said, ‘Don’t you apologize to me. You went through a terrible thing, and I thank you for talking to me.’ ”

On July 6, 2005, the 61st anniversary of the fire, Block attended the dedication of a memorial on the former circus grounds in her hometown. The memorial marks the exact location of the tent, with a disk listing the names and ages of those who died.

“I went with two lifelong friends, but I didn’t know anybody,” she said. But one woman, who attended with a man Block knew from the old days, remembered Block’s mother.

“When she said she knew my mother, a chill just ran through me,” Block said. “But the whole experience – I was glad that I went.”