The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows, billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth," arrived in Hartford, CT on July 5, 1944, a day before the fire. The oval-shaped circus tent, made of canvas, was approximately 425 ft. x 180 ft. and covered an area of 74,000 square feet. The tent had a seating capacity of 9,048 people: 6,048 in the reserved grandstand seats and 3,000 in the general admission bleacher seats. Attendance on the afternoon of the fire was just under 6,800. The circus had over 1,000 employees, but it's unclear how many of them were inside the tent when it caught fire. Reports estimate that roughly 7,000 people were inside the tent when fire broke out. There were nine exits from the tent, but except for the main entrance and bandstand on the opposite end, the exits were narrow aisles in between the stands used primarily by performers. Additionally, when the fire started, two of the exits were blocked by cage runways, called "chutes" in the circus industry, used to bring the animals to the stage.
People flee as flames consume the "Big Top" during a performance outside of Hartford on July 6, 1944.
The fire was first discovered about 2:40 p.m., 40 minutes into the 2:00 matinee. The fire began on or near the ground 20 or so feet to the right of the main entrance, between the main tent and a small canvas enclosure directly behind it that was the men's toilet. Reportedly, most of the crowd made no effort to leave in the first few minutes after the fire was spotted. According to the NFPA Quarterly v.38, n.1, "it is said that at the outset the crowd viewed the fire incredulously, thought it part of the show, or believed it to be an incipient fire that would quickly be controlled"
As the animals were being led through the chutes at the end of their act, cries of "Fire" rang out from the general admission bleachers to the right of the main entrance, directly in front of the where the fire had started. It was at this time when people began to take the fire seriously, as flames burned slowly up the canvas wall to the tent's top and then shot rapidly to the opposite corner of the top.
Diagram of the Hartford Circus Fire, July 6, 1944. There were 167 confirmed fatalities.
Most people in the front and back few rows were able to escape-- those in the front rushed directly to an exit, and those in the back jumped 10-12 feet to the ground and escaped under the canvas walls. But many people in the middle rows stumbled and fell because of loose folding chairs scattered about in the mad dash by those in the rows ahead of them. Some who fell were trampled to death, and a few people were killed by the collapse of the poles holding the tent up or from the burning tent falling on top of them. However, the majority of those who died were people sitting along the left hand wall from the main entrance. Two of the three exit aisles on this side were blocked by the animal chute cages. The steps that went over the chutes quickly proved inadequate, and attempts to climb over the chutes were largely futile. People began to pile up against the sides of the chutes, where most of the bodies were found. In all, 167 people died in the fire, and many hundred were injured, some hospitalized for months.
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Special thanks to Laurel Wilson for her work in researching and writing this synopsis of the Hartford Circus Fire.