Recommended by Bill


The Circus Fire by Stewart O'nan

In 1944, an estimated 6000 people packed the big top in Hartford Connecticut for a matinee performance; a big top made of heavy canvas and waterproofed with paraffin wax. 167 were killed and over 700 were injured when a fire broke out behind one of the grandstands and quickly consumed the tent, raining down flaming canvas and melted globs of burning wax.

This book paints a pretty good picture of the circus that day, and as a firefighter reading it, you can see where some of the details of how the seating and exits of the big top would create a real problem in the event of an emergency. This story reminded me a lot of the Station Nightclub Fire. In both of those fires, precious moments at the beginning of the fire were wasted while the audience watched the fire grow.

This book goes into detail covering the stories of many of the people there that day. So many stories that it often becomes confusing trying to keep up with names. But the author was making a conscious decision to include as many of those stories as possible, since many of the previous books on this fire have concentrated on some of the more gripping personal narratives of this fire. It's admirable to do so, but it ultimately makes this book a little hard to follow with so many small details.

However, this is once again a story of a large fire that shocked an American public that was tempered by WWII and eventually changed fire codes. And for that reason, it has to be included on my list.

Recommended for all ranks (because as a member of the fire profession, we should have a knowledge of our history.)