Clip breaks in circus accident, officials seek cause

In this photo provided by Frank Caprio, performers hang during an aerial hair-hanging stunt at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Friday, May 2, 2104, in Providence, R.I. (Photo: AP/Frank Caprio/Joe Ponte)
In this photo provided by Frank Caprio, performers hang during an aerial hair-hanging stunt at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Friday, May 2, 2104, in Providence, R.I. (Photo: AP/Frank Caprio/Joe Ponte)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The circus malfunction that sent eight acrobats hurtling to the ground during Sunday morning’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show was caused by the snapping of a clip that was meant to secure the performers in mid-air, according to Rhode Island public safety officials.

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare told Target 12 on Monday that the steel clip that held the performers to the rafters broke, causing the eight acrobats putting on the so-called “Human Chandelier” portion of the show to fall to the ground.

Pare said the device that failed “looked like a large carabiner clip” and that each performer was secured to the support device with at least two carabiner clips per performer. He said the clip that snapped, which he said was around three inches by five inches, snapped on the “solid part” of the clip, not at the hinge.

“There are dozens of clips involved in the set-up [of the performance],” Pare said. “Right now, we know one failed, but investigators are looking at all of the clips.”

The steel carabiner was rated for 10,000 pounds, while the weight of the performers and apparatus only totaled about 1,500 pounds, fire officials confirmed.

A statement released by Feld Entertainment confirmed that a carabiner in the rigging failed, and that investigators are looking into why the device broke.

Determining why is critical to identifying the next step in this process. The safety of our cast, staff and crew, as well as our guests, is our highest priority. We will continue to inspect all of our equipment on our touring shows, and we are replacing every carabiner on this unit before the next performance,” the statement read in part.

According to Dunkin’ Donuts Center General Manager Larry Lepore, the set-up of each performance is visually inspected by Ringling Bros. personnel before and after each show. He said the equipment was set up on Wednesday and he said – to his knowledge – it was inspected before it was used on Sunday.

President of the Firefighters Union, Paul Doughty, said that neither city, state, or the Providence Fire Department is responsible for inspections. Circus officials told the fire department that the equipment was “visually inspected as a routine part of the process”.

Pare said federal workplace safety investigators are focusing on why it failed.

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.”

Several people on the ground were also injured when the performers fell 25 to 40 feet to the ground during a Sunday performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

As 9 p.m. Monday, four of the eight performers were listed in serious condition, but a spokesman for the circus’s parent company said none of the performers’ injuries appear to be life-threatening.

Circus officials announced Monday morning that the remaining shows on the Providence schedule would be canceled while an investigation into Sunday’s malfunction continued.

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