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The Hartford Circus Fire Essay

2632 words - 11 pages

On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus came to Hartford, Connecticut. It was recorded to be a hot, sunny afternoon, and though an accurate temperature for the day wasn’t taken, Hartford tends to average 81 degrees during July (WeatherUnderground, 2014). The circus had travelled the country and had stopped at other New England towns before settling into Hartford. It had even been to Hartford previous years. Everything was set up as usual: the seating arrangement, the performances, the location of the tent; so if this were the case, what happened in Hartford to cause it to be named the largest circus fire in history (Kimball, 1944)?
Prior to the fire, Hartford ...view middle of the document...

There was enough seating in the tent to hold 9,000 people, excluding the circus staff. At the time of the fire, the circus had sold enough tickets to indicate there was roughly 7,000 patrons in the tent, plus the number of employees, however, it is unknown how many employees were in the tent at any given time (Kimball, 1944). The tent was waterproofed using 3-4 parts gasoline and 1 part paraffin. Fireproof material wasn’t used because it was exclusively a war material and the only way for the circus to have access to the material was to pay a military tax, which they obviously opted out of. The waterproofing had taken place the previous April, over a year before the fire had occurred (Hartford Circus Fire, 2014). In the center of the tent were three main rings and the seats lined the outer area of the tent. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were a total of nine exits from the tent (Kimball, 1944). The first exit was on the west end and was measured at 20 feet wide and increasing to 30 feet at the outside. Two more exits were located on the east end at either side of the band stage. These both were 14 feet at the narrowest point and opened up to 19 feet. The north and south side each contained three exits that were 9 feet at the widest point and narrowed to 5 feet. These six exits were used primarily for the circus employees (Kimball, 1944). Unfortunately, all the exits on the north and south side were blocked by the cage runways used to move the animals back and forth from the tent to the trucks. The main exit was also blocked by these runways and was unavailable to the patrons for most of the performance. Ultimately, only one exit was usable for the 7,000 visitors and it was the smallest exit that opened out to 5 feet in width (Kimball, 1944). A diagram of the layout of the tent is attached at the end of the paper to aid in visual understanding.
There are some variations on who saw the fire first. By the time it was noticed, people claimed the flame to already be 5 feet high. In his paper, The Hartford Circus Holocaust, Kimball states that the patrons of the circus thought the fire might have been a part of the show, so they disregarded any danger they were in. If they had realized the harm, the flame should have been easily extinguishable (1944). Others claim that the band leader was the first to see the fire and signaled the band to play “Stars and Stripes Forever”, which is the code used at the circus in times of trouble; but by the time employees had reached the flame, the buckets of water were of no use (Hartford Circus Fire, 2014). The fire spread rapidly and reached the top of the outer tent, and with help from the wind, the entire tent was quickly engulfed (Kimball, 1944). The crowd became panicked as the ropes holding the tent burned, allowing the poles to fall, killing some of the patrons. Not realizing the animal runways were blocking exits, the crowd was running toward them, causing a pile up and many...

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