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A Shared History
by Bruce Hensler

10 human panic factors that made a circus fire deadly

In addition to lack of training, preparation and regulation, 1944 circus fire was made worse by human behavior

By Bruce Hensler

On July 6, 1944, just a month since the Allied landing at Normandy, a crowd of people streamed into the big tent of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Set up on a city owned lot on Barbour St. in Hartford, Conn., the circus offered a brief diversion from the losses and sacrifices of a people at war.

The crowd of mostly women and children entering the big top were unaware that very shortly they would be in a fight for survival.

The first waves of troops storming the heavily defended beaches on D-Day knew they were facing almost certain death, but there was no widespread panic or breakdown of behavior.

Military training reinforces adaptive behavior so that even in the face of death troops will not panic, except possibly under extremely dire circumstances. Training and leadership maintain the forward momentum toward an objective, serving as the foundation and catalyst, respectively, for desired behavior.

Failure to act
The circus crowd in Hartford lacked the training and experience to escape a deadly fire. They were not prepared to maintain the calm thinking needed to escape and no one present exerted the critical leadership that might have changed the outcome.

But, the Hartford circus fire victims are blameless in these failures. Blame instead falls on the managers of the circus and on government officials responsible for public safety.

The circus managers failed to act responsibly to prevent and suppress a fire, and they failed to exert leadership in the face of an ensuing disaster. City officials hold blame for failing to share information between departments (such as building, police and fire) that might have heightened the awareness level of the circus event and for not staging equipment and personnel in proximity of an event of this size where hazards were present.

The result was that a preventable fire grew to a deadly inferno and led to panic in a crowd of innocent people causing scores of deaths and injuries. 

There is a tendency to attribute panic behavior to any extreme decisions or actions made under the stress of survival. The term frequently appears in accounts of multi-fatality fires to explain behavior we do not understand.

Panic arises from uncertainty in the face of extreme threat where circumstances force individuals into making a mental calculation that extreme action is required for survival. The classic definition offered is a sudden and excessive feeling of alarm or fear, usually affecting a body of persons, arising from a perceived or imagined threat, vaguely apprehended, and leading to extraordinary and indiscriminate efforts to secure personal safety.

That definition leads us to view panic behavior as a flight or fright reaction, by a group induced by fear, producing non-rational, non-adaptive, and non-social behavior that serves to hinder or thwart escape.

The circus big top
The large group entering the circus big top in Hartford numbered over 7,000. But 169 of them, mostly women and children would die from burns, smoke inhalation and crushing injuries sustained in the effort to escape the fire. The injured numbered at least 200 and in all likelihood, the actual total was twice as high as many just ran from the scene without seeking medical treatment.

Survivors would long recount the emotional and physical scars from the fire suffered on that hot and humid summer day. The big top circus tent had nine openings and was 425 feet long and 180 feet wide, and took up about 1-3/4 acres.

Most of the 6,000 or so freestanding seats were folding chairs. The bleachers were general admission seating, situated in two sections on the east and west ends; these benches were 16 to 18 rows deep with the top row about 10 1/2 feet off the ground.

The fire starts
The first indication of imminent danger came from the circus band around 2:40 p.m. The playing of "Stars and Stripes Forever" signaled to the circus people that something important demanded their attention.

There was a fire behind the bleachers near the main entrance on the west end. Circus-hands noted flames spreading up the big top's sidewall. They tried to extinguish the fire using the buckets of water kept beneath the grandstands for small fires, but this was no small fire.

At the first sign of fire, people were initially calm. But when they realized the fire growth was so extreme and that time to escape was running out, they grew agitated and fearful.

The sidewalls of the canvas tent did not present the real hazard. It was the top panels of the large tent — the sections waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline that gave the fire its opportunity to spread out above the heads of the circus audience.

Once the fire reached the top of the sidewalls, it only took minutes for it to race across the top of the tent, creating a blanket of flames over the crowd. A gust of wind from the southwest fanned the fire driving the flames across the underside of the top panels.

The crowd panics
As burning sheets of canvas plus dripping paraffin rained down on the heads of the crowd, they collectively realized the full threat now upon them. Their only chance for survival demanded a supreme effort directed toward an exit and the outside.

As the six support posts of the big top failed in succession, panic set in and the rush of people jamming into the exits produced a crush of bodies. Friends and family members lost each other. Those left inside fell beneath the blanket of burning canvas and flaming paraffin.

Of those killed, most were children and women. In the confusion of those moments, of what seemed to be hell itself, few recognized that a means of escape was under the bottom edge of the tent's sidewall. Aisles clogged with overturned folding chairs hindered the escape of those climbing down the bleachers.

Those making it to an exit, found horizontal escape blocked by caged ramps used for moving animals in and out of the big top. A few escaped by climbing over the caged ramps.

The fire consumed the tent in less than 10 minutes. The initial reports of the fire prompted the city to transmit three box alarms bringing seven engine and three ladder companies, the nearest only half mile away. Initial firefighting operations centered on extinguishing the fire to cover any trapped people and then moved to extricating and removing the injured and dead.

Lessons of war
The most badly burned casualties of the Hartford circus fire owed their lives to the lessons of military medicine learned in the tragedy of war and to the deadly Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire less than two years earlier in Boston.

The burn victims carried into Hartford's city hospital that afternoon, with 25 percent to 75 percent of body surface burned, would not have had much chance of survival before the war. For it was in the treatment of battle casualties that military and naval surgeons learned about the need to replenish body fluid levels with plasma to minimize shock.

Without generous use of plasma and oxygen, the rate of mortality from the Hartford fire might have increased as much as 60 percent. Teams of physicians started the flow of plasma into the injured in whatever way possible.

If the burn injuries were too extensive to permit injection of plasma intravenously, the patient went immediately to an operating room where surgeons isolated a vein by a cut-down procedure thus allowing the flow of life-giving plasma.

The more severe cases then went into oxygen tents. This initial treatment regimen, specifically morphine, plasma and oxygen, followed a pattern outlined by doctors from Boston who rushed to Hartford to provide assistance and expertise. The next steps included Vaseline dressings, stimulants and tetanus anti-toxin (to those who could take it).

In the wake of the fire, five of the circus managers received prison sentences of up to one year for failing to ensure circus workers had emergency training and to properly manage the ensuing crisis. The state of Connecticut subsequently banned circus big-top tents.

The fire led to circuses treating tents with less flammable retardants and prompted the trend to indoor venues. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey paid damage claims out of profits until 1950, and managed to be back on the road giving shows in stadiums a month later.

The Hartford circus fire stands as the deadliest American amusement facility fire.

Factors that induce panic
There are 10 factors, that when they occur in combination, increase the probability of extreme forms of competitive behavior in a crowd. Experts who study panic behavior group the factors into three categories: preconditions, reactions to precipitating event, and factors once the traffic flow is strong.

Preconditions

  • There are severe limitations on the amount of passage space and/or on the number, width or location of exterior openings.
  • A large number of people are present.
  • There is a widespread lack of knowledge about some of the available paths and the location of some of the exterior openings.
  • There is a lack of an adequate emergency plan or the lack of adequate training in the implementation of the plan.

Reactions to precipitating events

  • There is a widespread perception of serious negative consequences for the failure to exit or enter by some time limit.
  • There is a widespread perception of a sever limitation on the time available to exit or enter.
  • There is a strong tendency to use the most familiar or most salient path and exterior opening.
  • There is an inability of potential leaders to exert influence.

Factors once the traffic flow is strong

  • The crowd density is so great that independence of individual action is lost to a considerable extent.
  • There is a failure to keep the exterior openings clear beyond those openings.

Law as collective memory
As a society, we seem only to learn from tragedies that something bad was actually preventable through education, regulation and enforcement. The following comment from The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters summarizes that notion.

"The emotional trauma of public tragedies tends to wash over communities with a stunning force and then slowly dissipate with time, as memories grow dim. The most meaningful residue and the most enduring legacy of a preventable tragedy, therefore, can often be found in the law, a medium by which one generation can transmit its hard-won lessons to future generations."
 

About the author

Bruce Hensler joined the fire service in 1976 and studied fire science. While in college, he boarded fulltime in a suburban Pittsburgh volunteer fire department protecting high-value commercial properties gaining practical experience in firefighting and rescue work. He served as a career firefighter for the McKeesport Fire Department before moving to Maine where he worked in several departments holding career positions as assistant fire chief and fire chief. He went on to the state's firefighter training program from which he retired as deputy director of operations in 2007. He holds a graduate degree in public administration and a certificate in geographic information systems. His interest in the fire service and its history encompasses the human and geographic aspects of responding to emergencies and disasters. He is an active volunteer firefighter and is currently working on a second book about urban volunteer firefighters in the late twentieth-century. He lives in Pennsylvania and is the author of Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service published in 2011 by Potomac Books. More information about his book is available at www.potomacbooksinc.com/books or at his Web site www.brucehensler.com. Bruce.Hensler@FireRescue1.com.



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