No one knows exactly what caused the first small flame in the southwestern corner of the main circus tent in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944, but it quickly grew, partially obscured by the bleacher. Karl Wallenda, whose family of trapeze artists were performing under the Big Top, was one of the first to see it, and his reaction prompted Bandleader Merle Evans to play "Stars and Stripes Forever", the universal disaster march. Ushers attempted to extinguish the flame, but the tent had been meticulously waterproofed with paraffin soaked in gasoline, and it burst into flames within seconds.
In the midst of the chaos, big cat trainer May Kovar had been preparing to take the stage with her five panthers. Pieces of the flaming roof were falling on their heads, and the animals began turning on each other as she began to herd them down the iron-barred tunnel-like chute leading back to their pens. One took a swipe at a child whose mother had dropped him as they escaped over the chute, clawing his arm and shredding his shirt sleeve. The last panther in line turned on May herself, but she took a step back to let the cat make its own decision which way to go; it chose the chute, and she closed the cage door behind it. May then lifted several trapped children over the chutes before going to protect her animals until the fire ultimately burned itself out. A retired New York City fire fighter who witnessed her actions called May "the bravest girl I've ever seen".
Sadly, and despite the calming attempts by police officers and the heroics of circus workers - including the famously sad-faced clown Emmett Kelly - 168 circus-goers were killed during the fire. Four men were eventually convicted of manslaughter, though they were each pardoned soon after, and one - after passage of a special bill allowing it despite his criminal record - served in the Florida House of Representatives for 24 years.
Links and Sources:
The Circus Fire, by Stewart O'Nan, Doubleday, 2000.
Photo of the fire by Spencer Torell, courtesy of the Hartford Courant.
Photo of May Kovar courtesy of the Circus World Museum.