Hartford Circus fire

06/07/1944 Connecticut, USA

Hartford Circus fire

Type of Fire

Hydrocarbon

Ignition Source

Cigarette

Duration

10 minutes

Casualties

167+ fatalities, 500+ injuries

Cost

Loss of life

What happened at the Hartford circus, Connecticut?

On a warm, sunny evening in July 1944 a Big Top was erected for the Hartford Circus. To protect the canvas a coating was applied to make the material waterproof in the event of rain.

Outside the Big Top many people were gathering, hastily making their way inside for the show which had already started. The tent became full and, within minutes, the top was ablaze.

When the occupants noticed the fire it caused panic which spread to the performance animals. Everyone attempted to make their way outside, but many people did not make it to the exit. This resulted in the deaths of more than 167 people.

 

How did the Hartford circus fire start?

On the day of the incident it was decided that 6,000 gallons of white gasoline and 60 barrels of yellow paraffin wax would be used to protect the tent from the elements.
The canvas sidewall was frequently stained with cigarette burns but never the sufficient heat to cause it to ignite. As a result, the sidewalls were not immersed with the treatment.

It’s believed that a discarded cigarette was thrown and may have landed on the canvas which was now releasing highly volatile vapours, which ignited.

 

What can the industry learn from the Hartford circus fire?

There were no fire provisions (e.g. boxes of sand) or water hydrants at the Big Top - the nearest was some 600 ft away from the lot entrance.

The fire burnt the Big Top to the ground in less than 10 minutes. Dental records had to be used in order to identify nearly all of the victims - some of whom were found at an obstructed runway jammed together with each other and the circus animals.

The site is now a memorial ground for those who lost their lives. The event prompted a change in safety standards for circus and entertainment venues.

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