In July of 1944, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus pulled into Hartford, Connecticut. Nearly 7,000 people showed up for the matinee performance on July 6. While the big cats in the center of the ring enthralled spectators and Flying Wallendas climbed up to their high wires, the performers heard an ominous sound from the bandstand. The band had signaled an emergency to circus personnel by playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." Something was going terribly wrong.
Circus employees sprang into action, but onlookers still had no idea there was a problem as a six-foot line of flames spread up the wall of the big top. Roustabouts tried in vain to extinguish the blaze using the buckets of water for firefighting stored beneath the grandstands, but to no avail.
The sidewalls of the big top were ordinary canvas; however, the top was waterproofed to protect circus-goers from the possibility of bad weather. The big top was treated with a mixture of paraffin wax and gasoline—a deadly combination as the fire reached the top of the sidewalls. Once the fire reached the treated canvas above the heads of the spectators, it took only minutes for fire to race across the tent. Flaming bits of canvas and dripping paraffin wax rained onto the crowd below as they realized the danger and began to clog the exits. As each of the six support posts failed in succession, the crowd became more frenzied, people were trampled, and families were separated. Those still inside the tent when the last support post failed were trapped beneath a blanket of fire.
Of the 169 people killed in the fire, only five were men. The rest of them were women and children, many of whom had been hindered by aisles blocked by folding chairs and the exits blocked by caged ramps used for moving animals in and out of the big top. Relatively few people were clear-headed enough to escape by crawling out under the canvas sidewalls. Instead, they demonstrated a well-known human behavior phenomenon—they tried to get out the same way they came in, despite the fact that these exits were clogged with people.
As Hartford buried its dead, new rules and regulations for fire safety in circuses and commercial tents were drafted. As a result of these changes, circuses were required to have a fire department on standby for all performances, with hose lines charged. A dedicated fire watch was required during performances. Aisles had to be maintained free of seating. And the big top was now required to have a flame-retardant treatment.
Changing economic times resulted in the relocation of many circuses from big tops to arenas, which included amenities such as air conditioning and lighting. Despite the changes, commercial tents are still in use today and required to adhere to NFPA 102: Standard for Grandstands, Folding and Telescopic Seating, Tents, and Membrane Structures. As a result, the U.S. hasn't seen a commercial tent fire claim another life since that tragic day in Hartford in 1944.