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Aerial view of the tent after the fire, Hartford, July 6, 1944. Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library. From “What a Disaster,” Connecticut Explored Fall 2011
The Hartford Circus Fire may be Connecticut’s worst disaster caused by human error.
Thursday, July 6, 1944 was a hot and humid day. 6,000 people came to the big tent in a field on Barbour Street to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The Flying Wallendas were performing their high-wire act. Suddenly, from his perch high in the tent, one of the performers pointed to the blaze. He screamed, “The tent’s on fire!”
Nobody knows how the fire started. It spread quickly. The tent canvas had been treated with oil to make it waterproof.
Chaos erupted. Ushers ran with buckets of water to put out the flames. But the fire quickly became out of control.
The crowd ran toward the exits. Flaming pieces of canvas fell on them. Some people jumped from the top row of seats—15 feet to the ground. Others slid down the poles and ropes to get away. Some people rushed back into the tent to help.
Most of the audience was able to get out. But in just 10 minutes, 168 people were killed, including 80 children. Many survivors were injured.
Outside, parents ran around in a panic, searching for their children. Rescuers helped the injured. Governor Raymond E. Baldwin was at the scene. He directed the rescue and stayed on the job far into the night.
On July 6, 2005, a memorial was dedicated in the park behind Wish School in Hartford. It includes the names of the 168 people who died.
This essay is adapted from “What a Disaster,” by Emma Demar and Elizabeth Normen, Connecticut Explored, Fall 2011.