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The big cats were herded through the chutes leading from the performing cages to several cage wagons, and were unharmed except for a few minor burns. Investigators at the time believed it was caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette; however, others suspected an arsonist.Several years later, while being investigated on other arson charges, Robert Dale Segee (1929–1997), who was an adolescent at the time, confessed to starting the blaze.A small number of people were found alive at the bottoms of these piles, protected by the bodies on top of them when the burning big top ultimately fell down.Because of a picture that appeared in several newspapers of sad tramp clown Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket, the event became known as "the day the clowns cried." On July 7, 1944 charges of involuntary manslaughter were filed against five officials and employees of Ringling Bros.Additionally, free tickets had been handed out that day to many people in and around the city, some of whom appeared to eyewitnesses and circus employees to be drifters who would never have been reported missing.While many people burned to death, many others died as a result of the ensuing chaos.Because at least two of the exits were blocked by the chutes used to bring the show's big cats in and out of the tent, people trying to escape could not bypass them.Some died from injuries sustained after leaping from the tops of the bleachers in hopes they could escape under the sides of the tent, though that method of escape ended up killing more than it saved.
167 people died In mid-20th century America, a typical circus traveled from town to town by train, performing under a huge canvas tent commonly called a "big top".It is commonly believed that the number of fatalities is higher than the estimates given, due to poorly kept residency records in rural towns, and the fact that some smaller remains were never identified or claimed.It is also believed that the intense heat from the fire combined with the accelerants, the paraffin and gasoline, could have incinerated people completely, as in cremation, leaving no substantial physical evidence behind.The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was no exception: what made it stand out was that it was the largest circus in the country.Its big top could seat 9,000 spectators around its three rings; the tent's canvas had been coated with 1,800 pounds (820 kg) of paraffin wax dissolved in 6,000 US gallons (23,000 l) of gasoline, a common waterproofing method of the time.