On July 6, 1944, a carelessly flicked cigarette incinerated 167-169 people in a matter of 8 minutes on a lovely day at the circus. A combination of low staffing, due to World War II, unsafe waterproofing, hastily thrown together circus grounds, and one cigarette caused the worst fire disaster in Connecticut’s history.
Only a few days after Independence Day, wives, with their husbands off at war, and their children came in hoards to the circus grounds in
Hartford, CT. It was a hot day with light summer clothing draped on the sweaty guests. The circus was especially busy that day. They had arrived the day before, late from being understaffed due to the war (1,300 employees were working the circus instead of their standard 1,600), and had missed their first show of the day – a circus superstition of bad luck. The crowd grew to 7,000 in the biggest big top at that time - Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. The big top had a capacity of 9,000 people! This large big top was covered with 1,800 pounds of paraffin wax and 6,000 gallons of gasoline to waterproof it.
Ringmaster Fred Bradna was just exiting the big cats from the stage, about to bring on the Flying Wallendas (tightrope walkers), when the band was directed by the band leader Marle Evans to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” – a song that was code for distress. A fire had ignited close to the band, and only Evans noticed. Bradna immediately got on his mic, urging the audience to be calm, but the power went out and no one heard him. The crowd began a mad dash for the exits.
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