It’s been 71 years. 7 decades since thousands of men, women, and children converged on Barbour Street in Hartford to enjoy the circus on July 6, 1944. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was America’s largest, one of many that crisscrossed the nation and entertained hundreds of thousands in an era before television, Minion movies, and stadium concerts.
If you were a kid in the ‘40s you went to the circus. Kids came to the Hartford circus from all directions on that steamy afternoon. Many had free tickets, and the best guess was that attendance was as high as 8,000. As The Great Wallenda performance began, an employee noticed a small flame spreading rapidly up the big top and sounded the alarm.
Despite pleas from the ringleader to remain calm and exit the tent, panic took over. The flames rapidly consumed the canvas tent, which had been waterproofed by soaking it in paraffin wax diluted in 6,000 gallons of gasoline.
Within minutes, anticipation and delight had turned into unimaginable horror as people were burned and crushed to death. Parents desperate to find children, people jumping from the stands to escape dripping and burning paraffin wax, and the screams of the injured and dying combined to create a scene worthy of Dante. In just eight terrifying minutes the burning big top collapsed, enveloping those who had not yet escaped.
The numbers of the dead and injured became muddled. Many victims were seen wandering back toward the suburbs. How many sought medical treatment from country doctors is unknown. The best guess is the fire killed 168 and injured well over 700. Many experts believe these numbers are low.
For many, the fire would haunt them forever. In an era before PTSD’s existence was known, survivors were plagued by emotional and mental trauma for decades. Actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly survived the fire and would later remark that he rarely went to theater performances because the sounds of large crowds would trigger flashbacks. This was tragedy with no bounds.
The story of one young victim, dubbed “Little Miss 1565,” was written about and followed for years in Connecticut. The young unidentified victim was finally tentatively identified in 1991 as Eleanor Cook, although even today controversy surrounds her identification.
There are two lessons for us from this fire. First, when you walk into a public area or building make note of at least one, and preferably two, exits other than the entrance you used. Fire service history is full of examples where people died because everyone tried to go out the way they came in.
Perhaps the most graphic example is The Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., where almost everyone went back to the main entrance. Approximately 100 died and 200 more were injured. Whether it is a restaurant, movie theatre, or airplane, take a few seconds to look around and find another way out.
The second lesson is don’t panic. The best thing you can do in a crisis, especially in a public area, is to take a breath and evaluate what is going on. More often than not your closest exit is not the way you entered the building.
The Hartford Circus Fire marks one of Connecticut’s darkest days. We honor the memories of the cherished lost by learning the lessons they left us.
Glenn Dube is a fireman with the Southington Fire Department.