Hartford Circus Fire - The Big Top Burns

Hartford Circus Fire - The Big Top Burns Visual Arts American History Disasters Famous Historical Events Social Studies

As the flames moved up, from the untreated sidewall, they found the big top's roof with its treated layer of paraffin and gasoline.  A disaster was seconds away:

The flames blazed up the laces, windblown, shooting to the roof.  When the fire reached the top of the westernmost centerpole, it split, forking in three directions - straight across the top and spreading down both sides at the west end, possibly along the seams, following the richest fuel.  Now the canvas itself was involved, the paraffin turning to gas and burning.

People had little time to leave, or even to know what to do.  The main exit was blocked - with the temporary runway for the wild animal show - and panicked spectators did not realize they could leave through other exists, or even the sidewalls.  They were not in a permanent structure, where the walls are solid.  They were in a tent where the sidewalls can be cut and ripped.

In fact, young boys used their pocket knives to rip through the sidewalls.  Circus employees helped to get children out by passing them through those newly created escape routes.

Yet - chaos reigned as the narrow grandstands began to give way.  Trying to get out through the main exit, people scrambled over wild animal cages (which were blocking the way), getting scratched by the big cats in the process:

People were screaming - women, children - and the chairs banged and clashed as the grandstands began to react.

Over the PA, the announcer asked the audience to please leave their seats in an orderly fashion.  The power went out, cutting him off.

The track near the front door filled with people.  They'd come in that way; it was the only door they knew, and they made for it, running past other, easier exists - typical fire behavior:  a reversion to the comfort of the familiar when faced with the strange.  Above them, the top was solid flames, making them duck, yet still they surged, bottling up between the bleachers.  (Quoted passages from The Circus Fire:  A True Story of an American Tragedy, by Steward O'Nan, page 73.)

Around 6,800 people had about one minute to leave the tent before the roof was fully engulfed in flames - and destroyed.  Within fifteen minutes, the entire structure had evaporated.

Click on the image for a better view.

Media Credits

Image of the 1944 Hartford circus-tent fire, online courtesty National Archives.


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"Hartford Circus Fire - The Big Top Burns" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 22, 2020.
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