DISASTERS: Six Minutes

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The smoking little flame wavered higher up the side of the cavernous tent in the big lot at Hartford, Conn. The thousands of women and their children, and the scattering of coatless men massed in the bleachers, sat quietly, second after second, watching the high-wire performers of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show On Earth. They breathed the circus smells of peanuts and tigers, in the hot afternoon air, and listened to the thumping circus music. Some of them watched the harmless-looking little fire crawling up the canvas.

Then the flame suddenly spurted upward with nightmare swiftness, and billowed silently across the whole top of the tent near the main entrance. The bleachers suddenly rumbled under thousands of feet; folding chairs clattered and banged. The crowd struggled to reach the ground, flowed wildly toward the exits, clotted into groups which pushed and elbowed with silent, furious concentration in the furnace-like heat. Men & women in the high bleacher seats began dropping children to the ground, then jumped themselves. Then great blazing patches of canvas fell. Women screamed as their hair and dresses caught fire. Then a tent pole toppled soundlessly, trailed by burning canvas. People were still struggling down from their seats.

Three minutes had passed.

Disaster March. There still was brassy music. The band, on their feet at the unburned end of the tent, jerkily pumped out The Stars and Stripes Forever, as a "Disaster march," the traditional circus warning to performers outside the tent to rally round for trouble. The aerialists slid down their ropes, began tumbling acrobatically toward safety.

A mass of the crowd headed toward the performers' exits near the band. Hundreds of them jammed up against the barred runway through which the last leopards from the animal acts were still slinking toward outside cages. As the people struggled here, some scrambling over, some lifting small children, some trampling wildly, the fire raced toward them along the collapsing canvas high overhead. The heavy tent poles fell quickly, one after another. As the last toppled, all the blazing canvas came down on the crowd. There was a brief, screaming struggle beneath it.

The sooty bandsmen, now safe outside, began to play again. The street and the circus lot with its rows of red-painted wagons, the open lots lying beyond, were full of people watching the hotly burning wreckage. Past them wandered the burned and the weeping; the frantic parents of children dead in the flames, the lost tots staring at strange faces, the dazed and blackened figures with singed hair and loose rags of clothing.

Six minutes had passed.

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