Hartford, CT. Great Circus Fire
By George Arnold, Army, Navy
Writing Type: Prose
By George H. Arnold
On July 6, 1944, disaster struck the people in Hartford, Conn., in a way I will never forget.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in town with their Big Top show. The show started that afternoon with the Big Top filled with at least 6,000 men, women and children. Fifteen minutes into the program, smoke brought the first sign of the impending disaster. The tent then burst into flames near the animals’ entrance runway located by the southwest bleachers. Fire then quickly spread up the tent’s side. First to see and feel the fire’s heat were the trapeze performers, who wasted no time jumping to their safety nets. Laughter turned to screams heard outside the tent.
People inside the tent stampeded toward the passageways that allowed only two persons at one time to pass through. Panic erupted inside the tent. In an instant, those in the bleachers fell over each other pushing and shoving but once down on the circus floor found their passageway blocked. People rushing to safety stepped on others, not caring on who or where they stepped, but again only to find all passageways blocked. Moments later, the Big Top tent collapsed, trapping those still inside under a blanket of flames fueled by the liquid paraffin and gasoline mixture used to waterproof the tent earlier that week.
Circus staff and Hartford citizens outside the Big Top tent were the first to start fighting the fire and give aid. Clowns that had brought smiles and laughter minutes before now with sadden faces moved buckets of water to the fire. The injured were hauled in cars, trucks and by any means possible to hospitals that quickly filled. There were no ambulances in 1944.
When all was done, 168 men, women and children lost their lives in the worst U.S. circus fire. I, at the age of three, and my brother, age 4, were among the surviving circus goers that still remember the sounds, the visual horrors and the mental anguish caused by that fire 76 years ago.
Notes: This writing is about the July 6, 1944, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus fire disaster I was in.