Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
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.
A small fire simmered in the corner near the band, going unnoticed for a small time. That is, until Marle Evans noticed the fire and began playing the song of distress, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It quickly grew to two feet high and then more and more until it reached the ceiling of the Big Top. Once it reached the ceiling, BOOM, the fire shot across the entire ceiling. The paraffin wax and gasoline took the fire and ran with it.
It didn’t take long for strips of burning canvas to rain down on the fleeing patrons. The fiery canvas charred the light, summery fabrics and burned its victims. This fire was one of the few that had more deaths from burning than suffocation/smoke inhalation.
The definitive cause of the fire was never determined, but a carelessly discarded cigarette is the favorite theory. Another possibility is arson.
Within eight minutes, somewhere between 167-169 people died and over 700 were injured. Many of the dead had already escaped, but fought their way back into the tent to look for loved ones. Others died from being trampled because two exits were blocked with the big cat chutes and they couldn’t escape. While other patrons, throwing chairs out of their path, blocked victims from their escape. Those that fell during the trampling, but did not die from being crushed, were suffocated under the piles of people. While a few lucky ones survived because the bodies on top of them blocked the flames from reaching them. Other patrons that were high in the bleachers died from jumping 9-12 feet to try and go underneath the side of the tent.
For the next few weeks, Hartford was a town of funerals. Every fifteen minutes a funeral would take place.
Following the initial investigation, five top Ringing Brothers Barnum and Bailey employees were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Within a
few days, the circus settled and agreed to pay the full financial responsibility. The circus ended up paying out $5 million to the 600 victims and victims’ families. All circus profits between 1944 and 1954 were set aside for the victims.
Four of the five employees charged were convicted and sentenced to prison. However, they were allowed to continue with the circus until they were able to help set up the business post-disaster. By the time they finished helping the circus set up, the men were pardoned. In fact, one of the pardoned men went on to represent in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next 24 years.
The fire also spurred major changes in code. Following the fire, circuses and commercial tents needed fire departments on standby for all performances with hose lines charged, a dedicated fire watch during all performances, aisles need to be free of seating, the big top needed to have flame retardant treatment, and tents needed to adhere to NFPA 102: Standards for Grandstands, Folding, and Telescopic Seating, Tents, and Membrane Structures. Many circuses moved to arenas. Because of these strict standards, there has not been a tent fire in the United States since that day.
This event was horrific for not only Hartford, but the entire country. It spurred much needed code changes for commercial tents and temporary structures that had little regulation. These changes, inspired by the fire, have saved an innumerable amount of people. There has not been a tent fire in the United States since that day.
- Hartford had won a fire safety award only weeks before this fire.
- There were twenty 2.5-3 gallon fire extinguishers and 30 small fire extinguishers as well as a fire truck at the circus that day, but with the haste of set-up, the extinguishers and truck were not available for use.
- The building code required 22-inch units of exit space for every 100 people, but the tent had only 43 units when 91 units were required.
- The band continued to play until the last pole fell, crashing the tent down (but, unlike the Titanic, this band was able to escape through a side exit).