On July 6, 1944, in Hartford, CT, a flame ignited the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus big top tent during the afternoon show. The fire started along the side wall near the main entrance. The canvas circus tent, coated in gasoline and paraffin to repel water, was extremely flammable and within minutes the entire tent was burning. Over 6,000 people were inside. It is estimated that at least 167 people were killed and over 600 injured. While some were able to jump from the bleacher seats escaping under the tent’s sides and others exited through the main entrance, many circus goers were trapped. Two steel runways used to shift animals from wagons to the exhibition cages in the center of the big tent, were still in place when the fire broke out and acted as a barrier. Within an hour all that remained of the “Greatest Show on Earth” were twisted metal poles, the metal animal runways, exhibition cages and the charred bleacher seats. The exact cause of the fire was never determined.
As flames consume the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus tent, people flee in terror.
In conjunction with local and state organizations, Red Cross quickly responded to the fire disaster in Hartford. Combined teams of doctors, nurses, and first aiders went into action at the site. Victims were given first aid, and volunteers transported the wounded to hospitals and the dead to the state armory, which served as a temporary morgue. Throughout the day, Red Cross volunteers assisted with locating missing relatives and friends, providing meals to relief workers and transporting victims. Blood plasma from the local Red Cross blood bank and other sources helped reduce the casualty rate. Given the acute medical needs of the victims, Red Cross nurses and volunteer nurse’s aides were in demand. A total of 597 individual nurses contributed 8,925 days of nursing care. Red Cross and the War Council established a registration and information service and Red Cross volunteers assisted with identifying the dead.
A victim of the circus tent fire is carried past an animal wagon by volunteer rescue workers.