Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on July 1, 2016.

Tent Horror

The Hartford circus disaster and big-top tent safety


Circus tents and the canvas from which they are constructed have been a fire concern for decades. One of the most infamous examples, the 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut, might have been avoided with proper fire protection.

On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus performed in Hartford in a tent that covered approximately 1.5 acres (6,000 square meters). Approximately 7,000 persons were in the tent for an afternoon performance. The tent canvas was not flame resistant. It had been waterproofed by the application of paraffin with gasoline as a solvent, a common practice at the time. A fire began near the ground at the outside and traveled up the sidewall canvas until it contacted the roof canvas. A gust of wind pushed the flame into the underside of the roof canvas, and almost instantaneously the entire canvas was in flames. Ropes holding the supporting poles burned through and the roof canvas fell. Within minutes, scores were dead and injured. Eventually, the fire would claim 167 lives, including 63 children. Most of the fatalities were due to burns caused when the blazing canvas fell on the crowd.

A fire demonstration of the tent canvas used by Cirque du Soleil's touring productions

A fire demonstration of the tent canvas used by Cirque du Soleil's touring production. Photograph courtesy: Cirque su Soleil

Cirque du Soleil has standardized its tent canvas to two products, with similar flame-resistant properties, that are well suited to tensile construction. The thinner of the two products is used as the tent ceiling, and the thicker is used for the tent walls. Both materials meet the flame propagation performance criteria of Test Method 2 of NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films. The two tent canvas products also meet the performance criteria of numerous test standards utilized in the countries where Cirque du Soleil performs.

RON COTÉ, P.E., is lead engineer, life safety, for NFPA. Top Photograph: Getty Images