Aetna Ambulance Service, Inc. was founded in 1945 by the remarkable Grady brothers in response to the Hartford Circus Fire on July 6, 1944, a tragedy that claimed over 100 lives and injured hundreds. Brothers Herman and Howard Grady later joined by their wives Jean and Ethel Grady founded the company, creating one of the first minority-owned ambulance services in the country. The successful business has continued to fulfill a vital public service while retaining it’s rich diversity and exceptional medical care. It is a point of pride for Aetna employees we continue this tradition to the present day. uAt a time when World War ll was still in progress, the arrival of the Barnum and Bailey Circus was a big event with no exception to the city of Hartford. The attraction provided excitement in difficult times. The crowd was made up of mostly women and children as many of the men were away fighting in the war. The large Circus tents were set up on Barbour Street in Hartford. At the time the tents were made out of canvas and it was common to use paraffin, a combustible material, to make them water repellent. The fire led to the national prohibition of canvas tents coated with paraffin. uBrothers Herman and Howard Grady had both been Corpsmen in the Navy where they trained in first aid that would prove valuable in treating and caring for the injured. The Grady Family owned a flower shop on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford and would later run Aetna Ambulance out of their family home. At a time before television, people listened to the radio and when word of the fire was announced, a call went out for anyone with a truck or vehicle to respond to the scene to help transport the injured to the hospital. The Grady family immediately used their delivery van to assist and transported many. The Grady Family was deeply moved by the tragic event and the great loss of life in the Circus fire. They recognized a need for a full-time ambulance company in Hartford and went on to start their own in 1945, more than 10 years before the civil rights movement took hold in America. They possessed a deep commitment to help those in need, commonly being called out of family events, holiday dinners in inclement weather. The Grady’s also taught first aid classes to help educate others and serve their community. Aetna is proud of its dedication to Emergency Medical Services and it’s distinction in medical transportation.
by Sam Porcello
(Note: This post was written in the Summer of 2013) After advancing through the Regional competition at Torrington High School in March 2013, I participated in the State History Day competition at Central Connecticut State University on April 27th. During the interview portion of the state competition, the judges were intrigued by the photo of the two “doctors” loading a patient into an ambulance, and specifically asked about them.
The exhibit was awarded first place, so I will be participating in the National Competition at the University of Maryland in College Park from June 9-13. In addition, each year at Nationals, one student from each state is nominated to display their exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. I am honored to have been selected this year, so the story of the Hartford Circus Fire and Aetna Ambulance will be on display at the museum on Wednesday, June 12.
Thank you again. Please know that I will be thinking of all of you in June when I compete for Connecticut, and am proud to share this part of Hartford history with others. The story of Aetna Ambulance is remarkable.
by Sam Porcello
The fact that the business grew and continues to be strong today is a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of this family.
Thank you to Aetna Ambulance and the Grady family for all of your support and your patience, providing photos, information and answering all of my questions. Mrs. Grady and her daughters even came to cheer me on at the Regional competition! Mr. Titus’ first-hand account of the fire was chilling.
After advancing through the Regional competition at Torrington High School in March, I participated in the State History Day competition at Central Connecticut State University on April 27th. During the interview portion of the state competition, the judges were intrigued by the photo of the two “doctors” loading a patient into an ambulance, and specifically asked about them.
by Sam Porcello
One of the things that surprised me the most during my project research was the fact that the Gradys concealed their ownership of Aetna Ambulance, afraid that, 20 years before the Civil Rights Amendment, people would be reluctant to do business with African Americans. As Mrs. Grady recounted:
“(My family) found it difficult to get loans to finance their business. My dad was a local artist and would use what money he received from selling his paintings into the ambulance business. He was also a barber! They would conceal their ownership in the following ways: 1) By calling their business Aetna [ostensibly named, with permission, after the insurance company that they worked for] instead of Grady Ambulance because they knew that the general public would probably not do business with them because of the color of their skin; 2) When they appeared in photographs together helping patients they were careful not to have their names recorded or their actual relationship to the business recorded. People would believe that they were only the ‘ambulance attendants’ which was the intention.”
by Sam Porcello
Mrs. Grady was really helpful and supportive, and provided me with photos and additional information about her family. She also referred me to Robert John Titus. I was fascinated to learn how the Grady brothers, who received some basic medical training in the Navy, were inspired to begin a full time ambulance company following the Hartford Circus Fire. They saw a need for the service, and became only the second private ambulance company to serve Hartford.
More importantly, Aetna Ambulance was the first private ambulance company in Hartford to provide formal medical training to its employees. The Gradys didn’t stop there, reaching out beyond Hartford to help train other ambulance services. Mrs. Evans wrote to me that:
“My Aunt Jean was a member of the Red Cross and was a medical instructor. She helped state wide ambulance employees including Ambulance Service of Manchester, Wethersfield and Rocky Hill Volunteer Ambulance Service members retain their licenses…as Emergency Medical Technicians.”
by Sam Porcello
Reading the 1944 Transportation Committee of the Hartford War Council report on the Circus Fire from the State archives, Aetna Florist was listed as providing a delivery van to the scene of the fire to be used to transport the injured. In fact, Lucille Grady, who was in her twenties at the time, ran her brother’s florist business while they were away at war, and drove the van to the scene of the fire. (Prior to leaving for the Navy in 1942, Herman and Howard decided to convert one of the delivery trucks into an ambulance.)
I checked the Aetna Ambulance website, read about the company’s history, and emailed members of management to find out more. Aetna management got back to me right away, answered a lot of my questions and also put me in touch with Dianne Grady Evans, daughter and niece of Howard and Herman Grady, founders of Aetna Ambulance.
by Sam Porcello
Aetna Ambulance employee and Hartford Circus Fire survivor Robert John Titus wrote to me that:
“My most poignant memory was that there was no fire engine responder on standby. My second most poignant memory was that some people used jack knifes to make their own exits…I remember sitting and looking at the tent starting to burn and then coming down…people panicking, running and screaming, stepping over people to get out using the exits of which there were only 3. I remember Emmett Kelly the clown along with the Flying Wallendas helping people to get out.”
I started my research by attending a July 6, 2012 service at Hartford’s Circus Fire Memorial honoring the 68th anniversary of the fire. There, I learned about the fire from memorial plaques and interviewed a survivor. As I dug into newspaper articles, microfiche, secondary books, ordinances and the Circus Fire archive at the Connecticut State Library, I found many changes in local, state and National laws that were created as a result of the fire. Something else also caught my eye – I noticed a single article from the Hartford Courant written about 20 years ago that discussed Aetna Ambulance’s history.
Check back for future volumes…
by Sam Porcello
In Hartford, there was just one private ambulance company at the time, Maple Hill, provided through the Talarski Funeral Home. (Many funeral homes including Ahern on Farmington Avenue provided ambulance services in the early 1900s, since hearses were large enough for people to lay down in). Penicillin was newly available, and approximately 85% of the world’s supply was being used in the war to treat infections, including pilots’ burns.
There were several factors that contributed to the Hartford Circus Fire. Small circus fires were actually pretty common in 1944, because more than 41% of Americans smoked. Safety codes at the time applied mostly to buildings. Since tents were “just” temporary structures, they did not generate a lot of attention. Requirements for detailed safety inspections, exit widths and having fire equipment onsite did not exist for outdoor events. With resources depleted from the war, manpower was scarce, so there were fewer Ringling employees watching inside the tent for fires.
The tent itself was waterproofed with a highly flammable mixture of paraffin and 6,000 gallons of gasoline, which accelerated the spread of the fire. From the time the fire started until the tent was completely burned away, a total of 10 minutes elapsed. A total of 168 people died, and another 484 were injured….(more to come, check back for future volumes).
HARTFORD – Up-and-coming historian Sam Porcello has won several awards with a project on the Hartford Circus Fire that incorporated the birth and early days of Aetna Ambulance Service. (Click here for more about Aetna and the Circus Fire). Attached are pictures of the exhibit during National History Day at the Museum of American History (The Circus Fire exhibit was selected to represent Connecticut).
The physical display, as shown, contains a panel on Aetna Ambulance. The project started life at the Regional History Day competition on March 9th at Torrington High School and was visited by Grady daughter Dianne Evans and her daughters. Sam then advanced to the State Competition at Central Connecticut State University on April 27th, where the exhibit earned first place.
On June 13, the exhibit won the silver medal at the National Competition in Maryland where the judges were fascinated by canvas squares with information from the survivors and Aetna Ambulance. The origins of Aetna was read and appreciated by many hundreds of people.
Sam says, “During the interview at Nationals, the judges asked about what surprised me the most about the project, and I told them about the beginnings of Aetna Ambulance, including how the Grady’s tried to conceal their ownership.”
The exhibit will be at Connecticut’s Old State House in July, along with many other state entries.
by Sam Porcello
For the past three years, I have participated in National History Day, a nationwide historical research competition for middle and high school students. The theme for 2013 is “Turning Points in History: People, Places and Ideas.” I chose the Hartford Circus Fire as my topic because I have always been intrigued how every July 6th, amid the cheerful Fourth of July stories, my local news always includes a report about the 1944 fire. I wanted to find out why a 10 minute event continues to be discussed 68 years later, and what changes it brought about.
The tragic fire occurred on July 6, 1944 on Barbour Street in Hartford during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers circus. It was one month after D-Day. Connecticut, a major defense manufacturer with its Pratt aircraft, Colt firearms and Waterbury brass foundries, had a thorough emergency plan in place in case of enemy attack. This plan included using delivery vans from local businesses such as Aetna Florist, Colt, and Brown Thompson as ambulances to transport the injured…check back for future volumes.