Circus train wreck kills clown, trainer

January 14, 1994|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Bonnie Conkling was about to mail a sweater and a package of goodies to her daughter, Ceslee, yesterday morning when she heard about a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train derailment in Lakeland, Fla.

When Ceslee Conkling, a clown in the traveling circus, didn't telephone home for several hours, her parents feared the worst. They are a close family, her mother said, and Ceslee would often call the family's Azle residence several times a day while on the road.

The Conklings' worries were confirmed when they learned that Ceslee Conkling, 28, was one of two people killed in the wreck. At least 15 others received minor injuries.

"We always worried that she would hurt herself in one of her falls," Bonnie Conkling said yesterday. "She told us many times, 'If I go, don't worry. I'll go happy.' She was totally happy; she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. We never dreamed she would go in a train accident."

With her signature candy-pink big hair and stage name Sassy-Lee, Ceslee Conkling was well known in local clowning circles.

She was in her third year of clowning for the circus. The train had just begun its yearly nationwide tour after a show in St. Petersburg, Fla., Wednesday.

The Associated Press reported that 16 of the 53 cars on the train derailed about 9:15 a.m. as the train traveled from St. Petersburg to Orlando.

Nationally known elephant trainer Theodore Svertesky, 39, of Bridgeport, Conn., also died in the crash, the wire service reported. Mr. Svertesky was a leading elephant trainer who headed the Ringling Elephant Farm, a research and breeding facility in Williston, Fla. He also performed in the center ring. He presented the Blue Show's headline attractions, Romeo and Juliet, 1-year-old Asian elephants who were making their public debut with the show.

Twenty-five children aboard the train were uninjured.

As rescue crews worked on the wreck, a news helicopter covering the derailment crashed a half-mile away in a ball field next to a junior high school, injuring the pilot and a photographer.

The circus train is essentially a rolling city that includes a three-teacher school for show children, 24-hour food service in a "pie car," and other recreational and management facilities, the Associated Press said.

The cause of the derailment was not immediately known, but it occurred in heavy fog near a point where tracks come together. In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a 10-member investigation team.

Clowning was a love shared by mother and daughter, Bonnie Conkling said.

The two had taken classes and traveled to many competitions and conventions together, perfecting their craft.

They belonged to several clown organizations, including Cowtown Clown Alley, the Clowns of America International and the Texas Magicians. Bonnie Conkling teaches clowning at the Tarrant County Junior College Northwest Campus.

"Ceslee was the type person who, when she walked into the room, she lit it up with a smile and her twinkly eyes," said Joyce Milligan, president of Cowtown Clown Alley. "She was the daughter of our club. She had reached her dream. It wasn't work to her; she loved it. It was her life.

"When she performed here in August, she was just beaming like a big ball of love. It's a shame."

Bonnie Conkling said of her daughter, "She was a beautiful clown. I can't think of anything she would rather do than entertain children and people of all ages. She would shine on that floor. She would make you see her."

Ceslee Conkling spent up to 11 1/2 months a year on the road, and usually went from stop to stop aboard the circus train. The Conklings last saw their daughter on Thanksgiving weekend, when about 40 relatives gathered on the Texas Gulf Coast.

"We would fly to see her because she could never come to see us," Bonnie Conkling said. "We never worried about her traveling because the circus was very family-oriented. She had done six shows on the weekend and was filming a commercial, so she was really tired. I'm sure that's why she chose to take the train."

Ringling Bros. has toured the country by train since 1872. It abandoned the rails in favor of trucks and buses in 1957 but returned to the trains in 1960 because highway travel proved to be a logistical nightmare.

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