Frederick Bingham's Reviews > The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan
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's review
Jan 01, 2012

really liked it

The story of the 1944 Hartford Circus fire. On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Bros. circus played in Hartford, Conn. The circus tent was waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline. There were supposed to be fire extinguishers put out, but they were not. There were supposed to be circus water trucks next to the tent, but they were elsewhere. There were animal chutes blocking some of the exits. There were about 10,000 people watching the show. When a fire broke out, the top of the tent burned like a piece of paper. The fire department was called, but did not show up until the tent was completely engulfed. The people trapped inside were cooked by the intense heat. 167 people were killed and several hundred injured.The book describes all of this in vivid detail, tracking individual attempts to escape the flames. It discusses heroic individuals. One 13 year old boy, unable to escape through a side flap of the tent, used the pen knife in his pocket to slice his way through. Hundreds of people were able to escape using this hole. A clown, still dressed in his costume, used water buckets to prevent a nearby diesel generator from being involved, and probably exploding. An animal trainer made frantic efforts to successfully evacuate all of the big cats. No animals were killed, nor did any escape.The enduring mystery of the fire is the identity of a small girl who was found dead, but never identified. She went unidentified for many years. This mystery was supposedly solved a few years ago, but the author doubts that the identification was correct. All of this reinforces the lesson that people who should know better can sometimes put any one of us in a dangerous situation.

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