December 17

This Day in History

Disaster

Dec 17, 1961:

Circus catches fire in Brazil

On this day in 1961, a fire at a circus in Brazil kills more than 300 people and severely burns hundreds more. The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined but it may have been the result of sparks from a train passing nearby.

Christmas week was just beginning, the children had just begun their winter vacations, and spirits were high for the 2,500 in attendance at the Gran Circo Norte Americano, the Brazilian version of America's Ringling Brothers. The large blue-and-white tent was set up across the bay from Rio de Janeiro and was filled to capacity. All seemed to be proceeding as planned when disaster struck suddenly.

Antonietta Estavanovich, a trapeze artist, was the first to see the flames. From her high perch, she could see the roof of the tent beginning to burn. As the crowd became aware of the fire, pandemonium ensued and people were trampled as they tried to exit. In one reported instance, a Boy Scout attending the circus pulled out a knife, cut a hole in the tent and managed to get his family out safely. Hundreds of others, though, were not so lucky--323 people, many of them children, died in the fire. At least 500 more people were seriously injured, from burns, smoke inhalation and trampling.

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