Haley volunteer pushing for rename of hospital
TAMPA - Bob Sawallesh figures he has spent thousands of hours over the years helping patients at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital. He has driven them to appointments, interviewed homeless veterans to help them get assistance and worked with the wounded and their families. But in all that time, the retired Army lieutenant colonel from Valrico never saw a picture of the hospital's namesake prominently displayed. Curious, Sawallesh began to look into Haley. Always interested in research, he spent hours in front of the computer, in dusty library stacks and going through boxes of documents.What he found spurred him to ask that the hospital's name be changed. In 1945, Haley was sent to prison for what prosecutors say was his role in one of the worst fires in the nation's history – a blaze at a Ringling Bros. circus show in Hartford, Conn., that killed 168 and injured nearly 500 others. "How can you name a hospital that treats severely burned combat veterans after a man who spent time in jail for a fire that killed so many?" Sawallesh asked. Johnny Meah was 7 and living in Bristol, Conn., when his mother bought a pair of tickets to the circus from a department store. He remembers being excited on the bus ride that he would see the clowns and animals and acrobats under the massive Big Top tent. It was July 6, 1944. "I never forgot that day," said Meah, now 75 and living in Safety Harbor. Just before 2 p.m., Meah and his mother, Anne Meah, settled into their reserved seats – folding chairs on large wooden planks. The crowd numbered about 9,000. About 20 minutes into the show, as the famous Wallenda family was about to ascend the high wire, "There seemed to be some commotion near the main entrance on the opposite side of the tent," Meah said. "It was evident there was some kind of fire, but people were not terribly concerned. They thought it was some kind of clown gag." "That perception," Meah said, "did not last long." As the fire quickly spread, some circus-goers rushed for the track between the seats and the performance area, Meah said. Others jumped to the ground behind the reserved seats, only to find there was nowhere to run. Many of those who made it to the track found exits blocked by animal cages. "A lot of casualties occurred there," he said. Meah remembers looking down at the track, "filled with screaming, scrambling people." A man sitting next to him kicked down a railing and Meah and his mother jumped about 4 feet to the ground. Pushed along by the frantic crowd, the pair made it out a back door. They ran through a small wooded area to a city maintenance yard, where the survivors fell down a sand pit to safety. "I turned around and the whole big top was gone," Meah said. "It was just a sheet of flame." At the top of a small rise, Meah said, his mother found a phone booth. She called her husband, a cartoonist at The Bristol Press. "That is how, I am told, the whole circus fire story got out to the AP wires," Meah said. As vice president of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, James A. Haley was the highest ranking circus official traveling with the show. Once a promising pitcher with a shot at the major leagues, Haley, 45 at the time of the fire, was caught in a gas attack during World War I that injured his lungs so badly he could no longer play ball, according to his nephew, Jim Hamlett. Restless after returning from the war, Haley left his home in Anniston, Ala., "and headed south, for Florida, the land of opportunity," Hamlett said. He moved to Sarasota, took a mail-order accounting course and found work with the circus, Hamlett said. He also found love, moving in with Aubrey Ringling, the widow of Alf Ringling, one of the circus founders. "It was scandalous at the time," Hamlett said. But the cohabitation was not nearly as scandalous as the fire would become. About a quarter of the main tent had been consumed by flames by the time Haley left his train car and headed for the burning big top, "attracted by the sound of human screams," according to "A Matter of Degree," a book about the fire written by former Connecticut arson investigator Rick Davey, who now lives in Eustis. "Like many other Ringling employees, he was unable to alter the course of the blaze, but he later assisted in the removal of bodies," according to the book. Investigators later found that before the circus went on tour in May 1944, the circus had a new big top made. To waterproof it, they used a solution of 6,000 gallons of white gasoline and 18,000 pounds of wax. "The solution itself is highly inflammable and the circus officials and the circus personnel knew this and knew that the application of it to the canvas made the tent a great fire hazard," according to a Connecticut State Attorney's report. Haley knew or should have known the waterproofing mixture of gas and wax was flammable, that there was fireproofing material available and that because the circus had experienced a number of fires already, "fire was a constant danger to property and patrons," according to the report. Haley urged investigators to look into arson as a cause of the blaze but was ignored, according to Davey's book. With so many dead and injured, officials were looking for someone to blame. Haley and five other circus officials traveling with the show eventually pleaded no contest to 10 counts of manslaughter. On April 7, 1945, Haley was sentenced to one to five years in prison. He was sent to the Connecticut State Prison that same day. The sentence imposed by Judge William Shea was controversial. The Hartford Courant opined that "not all fault was with the circus executives," according to Davey's book. Despite the conviction, Haley – who as a circus executive was a powerful individual in Florida – remained a popular man. Then-governor Spessard Holland wrote about the case to his counterpart in Connecticut. Haley had nearly 200 visitors, including the attorney general of Florida, and received scores of letters from supporters, some of whom asked the warden if they could send Haley his favorite cigars. After eight months, Haley was paroled. The day before he left, he received a visitor – the judge who sentenced him. "Unkempt, unshaven and carrying the scent of alcohol," Shea "got down on his hands and knees and began to cry," according to Davey's book. On Christmas Eve 1945, Haley left prison and returned home to Florida and, ultimately, the circus, where he garnered record earnings and managed to pay off nearly $4 million in civil claims from the fire deaths. In 1950, police in Ohio arrested a man named Robert Segee on arson charges. According to Davey's book, Segee confessed to starting the fire that killed so many at the circus, where he worked as part of the lighting crew. "James Haley and his attorneys were certain that the outcome of the original legal proceedings in Hartford would have been far different if the damaging evidence about Segee had been uncovered at the time," Davey wrote in his book. In 1948, Haley became involved in local Democratic politics and won a seat in the state Legislature, according to his nephew, Jim Hamlett. Three years later, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he championed veterans and native Americans, among many others. In 1969, thanks to U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, construction began on a 720-bed veterans hospital across the street from the University of South Florida. With the Vietnam War raging, Haley fought the Nixon administration for more funding for the Veterans Administration. Despite Haley's activism for veterans, there was a great deal of debate over naming the hospital. Haley received letters from several veterans' service organizations urging him to name the new hospital after Melvin T. Dixon, a beloved veterans services agent who had recently died. Haley retired in 1976. The next year, Haley's successor, Rep. Andy Ireland, introduced a bill – supported by the entire Florida delegation – calling for the Tampa veterans hospital, already open for five years, to be named for Haley. On Jan. 11, 1977, the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Robert Sikes, gave an impassioned speech on the House floor lauding Haley's accomplishments. There was no mention of the fire. The hospital was officially named the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital on Aug. 28, 1978. Having the hospital named after Haley, who died in 1981, "was a big honor for him," Hamlett said. "He was such a big fighter for veterans' affairs, being a veteran himself." Hamlett said there is no reason to change the name of the hospital. "He did the right thing," Hamlett said. "He could have taken off but didn't." Johnny Meah, who despite surviving the fire went on to a long career with circuses and traveling carnivals, said it would be "crazy" to change the hospital's name. "Naturally, he was the most visible and somebody had to be a scapegoat and it was him," Meah said. "But knowing the structure of shows that big, believe me, not everybody in the front wagon knows what's going on." Davey, who spent nine years researching the fire, said that while he thinks Haley was "thrown under the bus," he tends to agree with Sawallesh. "If they wanted to name a civic center or courthouse after him, that would probably be more appropriate than to have his name on a hospital where they treat burn patients," says Davey. "Personally, I prefer it not to be there." Instead of being named for Haley, Bob Sawallesh said, the hospital should be named for Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith, a Tampa native who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for helping fight off an attack in Iraq in 2003. "As the generations change, it would be an honor to change the hospital," Sawallesh said. "Especially with the history I learned about." Any name change would require congressional action. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, vice chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he will investigate Sawallesh's request. "I have to do more research," Bilirakis said. "I don't know anything about James Haley, so I have to learn more about him. But I do know a lot about Paul Smith. He is a true American hero."
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