2 circus performers still listed in critical condition after fall

Emergency crews were called to an accident at Ringling Brothers Circus at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, Sunday May 4, 2014. (Photo via ReportIt)
Emergency crews were called to an accident at Ringling Brothers Circus at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, Sunday May 4, 2014. (Photo via ReportIt)

Update: Circus performers expected to recover (click for latest story >>)

Update: Investigators looking into what happened to send eight performers plummeting to the ground during a performance have found that a clamp snapped.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Thousands of spectators watched in horror late Sunday morning when equipment carrying acrobats at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show collapsed, sending at least eight performers to the hospital after they hit the ground.

Emergency crews were called to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in downtown Providence around noon after a metal apparatus called the “human chandelier” – which holds up performers hanging by their hair – unexpectedly gave way and sent them hurtling to the ground.

There was no net underneath to catch them, officials said.

As first reported by The Providence Journal, the eight women who fell were identified by a circus spokesman Sunday night as members of the Medeiros Troupe: Viktoria Medeiros, Widny Neves, Samantha Pitard, Viktorila Liakhova, Dayana Costa, Julissa Segrera, Stefany Neves and Svitlana Balanicheva.

Three of the eight performers were listed in good condition at last check around 9:30 a.m., according to Rhode Island Hospital officials. Those three women are Pitard, Balanicheva and Widney Neves.

The other five are reportedly still being treated at the hospital. Medeiros, Liakhova and Stefany Neves are each listed in serious condition, while Costa and Segrera are still listed in critical condition.

A Rhode Island Hospital spokeswoman said Sunday evening that 11 individuals came to the emergency room due to the accident and seven were admitted to the hospital. Providence public-safety officers earlier had reported only nine circus performers being transported from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center by ambulance – eight women and one man.

The accident happened at the 11 a.m. circus show during the act just prior to intermission, officials said. Witnesses told Eyewitness News the performers fell from about 30 feet in the air down into the center of the arena.

A viewer used ReportIt to send a video of the accident. The footage – which Eyewitness News is choosing not to show in its entirety due to its graphic nature – first shows a pink curtain fall to reveal the performers hanging in midair. Seconds later the metal apparatus abruptly collapses, sending the women hurtling to the ground before the equipment lands on top of them. The lights go out almost immediately after.

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ReportIt Gallery: Circus performers injured in fall

“They were hanging by their hair,” Rick Capuano, an audience member from Warwick, said. “All the girls hanging by their hair, and then it just falls to the ground and the big metal thing above them hits all of them. Falling from the roof of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center – that’s a drop in itself.”

At least 10 ambulances from Providence and surrounding areas arrived at the scene to treat the injured performers as stunned audience members looked on. The performance was stopped.

“I screamed. I’m like, that’s not right,” said Chelie Barrie of Mystic, Connecticut. “Sometimes you’re surprised and it’s part of the show but this clearly wasn’t. It’s quite a shame.”

The Ringling Bros. website describes the stunt that went awry on Sunday as a “Hair Hang.”

“These ‘hairialists’ perform a combination of choreography and cut-ups including spinning, hanging from hoops, and rolling down wrapped silks, all while being suspended 35 feet in the air by their hair alone,” the site says. “In this hair-raising act, audiences will even see the weight of three girls held aloft by the locks of only one of these tangled beauties.”

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, who initially said 15 to 20 circus performers were hurt in the accident, confirmed investigators from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were called to the scene to look into the accident, along with the city and the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal.

Paré and other police officials said Ringling Bros. was solely responsible for the setup and rigging of the show. They said the circus hires riggers, including local riggers, and conducts inspections before and after each show. A Providence spokesman said Ringling Bros. took out an entertainment license from the city to put on the circus show as required.

Ringling Bros. arrived in Providence on Friday to perform the show, titled “Legends,” which was scheduled to run at the Dunk through Monday. Police said 3,900 adults and children were in the audience for the circus performance Sunday morning.

Ringling Bros. had canceled three of the four remaining performances by late Sunday afternoon. On Monday morning, the fourth and final show scheduled for 7 p.m. was also canceled. The next stop for the “Legends” show is supposed to be in Hartford, Connecticut, starting on Thursday.

Officials urged anyone in need of counseling because of the accident to contact the federal government’s Disaster Distress Hotline by calling 1-800-985-5990 or sending a text message that reads “TextWithUs” to 66746. Hearing impaired individuals can call 1-800-846-8517. The hotline is operated by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is owned and operated by Feld Entertainment Inc., which is headquartered in Palmetto, Florida. “All of us at Feld Entertainment appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers for our performers, and we are sharing all of those with them as they recover,” the company said Sunday in a statement.

Feld said no other details about the accident were available.

Other live-performance franchises produced by Feld Entertainment include Disney On Ice and Disney Live. The Dunkin’ Donuts Center is owned by the R.I. Convention Center Authority, a quasi-public state agency, and operated by SMG.

Andrew Adamson, John Mitchell, Ted Nesi, Jared Pliner, Neil Remiesiewicz and Kelly Sullivan contributed to this report.

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