PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Investigators on Monday were looking at a broken clamp as they tried to figure out what caused eight circus acrobats to plummet to the ground during an aerial hair-hanging stunt, although the circus company said it’s too early to blame the accident on the clamp.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare told WPRO-AM a clamp that held the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus performers to the rafters had failed.
“It snapped off,” Pare said. “We have it, we’re analyzing it, we’re seeing why it happened to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.”
Two of the acrobats were in critical condition Monday. Family members say their injuries included a pierced liver and neck and back fractures. Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., said none of the injuries appear to be life-threatening.
“We are hopeful that all of these performers will achieve a full recovery and be able to return to the show at some point,” Payne said.
A spokeswoman for Rhode Island Hospital said performers Dayana Costa and Julissa Segrera were in critical condition. Viktoriya Medeiros, Stefany Neves and Viktorila Liakhova were listed in serious condition, while Samantha Pitard, Svitlana Balanicheva and Widny Neves were listed in good condition. The women are from the United States, Brazil, Bulgaria and Ukraine, according to the circus website.
Widny Neves’ father, Roitner Neves, said she broke her right arm and suffered back and neck fractures. He said Widny, who had been traveling with the circus for more than four years, was the in the center of the apparatus and upside-down when it fell.
“It was like a plunge into darkness,” he said.
She is 25 and from Joinville, Brazil, where her family owns a circus academy.
“In this profession, you run the risk of being injured,” he said. “It’s like being a race car driver or a gymnast. There’s always the risk.”
Costa’s cousin Gustavo Torres told Brazil’s TV Globo’s G1 internet news portal that she had undergone surgery in her back. Stefany Neves’ sister Renata Neves told the same news outlet that both her ankles were fractured and her liver had been pierced by her ribs.
Investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration were leading the investigation, with assistance from local authorities. Payne said the company also was investigating.
The accident was reported about 45 minutes into the performance at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. It was witnessed by an audience of about 3,900, many of them children.
The act is part of the “Legends” show, during which performers — called “hairialists” by the circus — hang “like a human chandelier” using their hair. The performance is supposed to include choreography as well as spinning, hanging from hoops and rolling down wrapped silks.
Video taken by audience members shows a curtain dropping to reveal the eight women hanging from a metal apparatus suspended from above. Seconds later, as they begin to perform, the women fall, and the apparatus lands on them.
Payne said the apparatus came free from the metal truss to which it was connected. The eight women fell 25 to 40 feet, landing on a dancer below.
The hair-hanging stunt is described on the circus’ website as a “larger-than-life act.” The site calls the act the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Andrey and Viktoriya Medeiros. Viktoriya Medeiros is among the injured.
“It is Andrey’s attention to every detail, even welding the three different rigs that the girls hang from, that keeps his troupe safe and sound each and every time the act is presented,” the website says.
Payne said Andrey Medeiros had welded the material that was used in the apparatus the women were hanging from, but he didn’t have information available about who constructed the clamp. He said the apparatus was attached to what was basically a heavy-duty chain on a winch, but he didn’t know how many connection points there were.
Payne said the equipment has been used dozens of times per week since the beginning of the year, and that a circus crew had installed it last week. The crew also inspects it, although he didn’t have information about when it was last inspected.
The performers generally check their own rigging before each performance, he added.
Rosa Viveiros of Seekonk, Massachusetts, said she saw that the acrobats had fallen on top of at least one other performer below, a man who stood up with his face bloodied. The acrobats remained still and did not get up, said Viveiros, who attended the circus with her husband, their 6-year-old grandson and 9-year-old niece.
“It was pretty overwhelming to see that,” Rosa Viveiros said.
The circus began performances in Providence on Friday. Monday’s shows were canceled, as were two on Sunday.
Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon from Sao Paulo, Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Conn., and Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.