On this day in 1944, the Hartford Circus fire broke out in a Ringling Brothers tent, during an afternoon show attended by thousands in Hartford, Connecticut. One-hundred sixty-seven people were killed. It was common practice at the time to waterproof the tents by coating them in a solution of paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline. The event is depicted by Stuart O’Nan in his 2001 book The Circus Fire: The True Story of An American Tragedy. The following is an imagined account from the perspective of a surviving member of the staff.
We’d been short-staffed since the war started, always running behind.
A few years before, a fire in the menagerie had killed our lion. No one
could forget the elephant’s screams. You could call that an omen, or you
could wait until the trains ran late and our first commandment was broken
and the show did not go on. The land got a taint before we started, leaked
from the first audience, the one that never saw the show. You could feel
it, like the first notes in a film where the mummy wakes up, before it moves.
It was a Friday afternoon, mostly women and children. It started right after
the lions, during the Flying Wallendas. The bandleader
played Stars and Stripes Forever, our smoke signal for danger. Don’t panic
folks, but you know how that goes. The big cats got out okay, but their chutes
blocked the exits. Some just ran in circles, calling the names of the ones they
could not leave.
As the flames consumed the tent, wax dripped from the roof, burning tiny
faces, flailing arms in summer shirtsleeves. The papers
called it the day the clowns cried.