Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on July 1, 2012.

Opening Hell’s Doors
The Hartford circus fire of 1944

NFPA Journal®, July/August 2012 

July 6, 1944, was a warm summer’s day in Hartford, Connecticut, and a perfect day for a matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. Some 7,000 people, mostly women and children, streamed into the big top to catch the show.

Twenty minutes after it began, as the audience finished applauding The Incomparable Alfred Court’s big cats and bears and awaited the Flying Wallendas’ high-wire act, a fire broke out near the ground on the tent’s sidewall. Eyewitnesses said it was small at first, contained enough to extinguish with one or two buckets of water, but no one could get water on it fast enough. Within minutes the entire big top was in flames. According to witnesses quoted in the July 7, 1944, issue of The New York Times, flames raced across the top of the circus tent, dropping pieces of burning canvas onto the fleeing audience as the band played “Stars and Stripes Forever” as loud as it could. Eventually, the entire tent collapsed, engulfing hundreds of people still inside.

A circus roustabout later told a Times reporter that “it was like you’d opened hell’s doors, and you had all you could do to get your hands over your face and run t’other way.” Those who could, ran for the exits. Others slipped under the canvas sidewalls. But others were trapped. Some who managed to escape tried to go back into the inferno to rescue loved ones. The Times reported that one woman, “her clothing charred, her face blackened,” tried to fight her way back into the tent, screaming, “My God, my God. My kid’s in there.” One hundred sixty-eight people died, many of them children, and almost 500 were injured. Six of the dead have never been identified. The Hartford circus fire was the worst circus fire in U.S. history.

In the aftermath of the event, investigators laid the blame for the rapid fire spread on the highly combustible solution used to waterproof the tent canvas: paraffin applied with gasoline. Though many speculate that the fire was started by a lit cigarette, the actual cause of the blaze remains undetermined.

— Kathleen Robinson