Single Clamp Holding Up Circus Performers Snapped, Says Investigators

May 6, 2014

Investigators say a clamp that held up an apparatus snapped, sending eight acrobats plunging 35 feet to the ground, falling on a dancer below. It happened on Sunday during a circus act where women dangle high above the ground from their hair.

It’s called the “hanging hair act.” Six women dangle from their hair circling two more performers in the center  creating what’s called a human chandelier. Caught on video, the act starts with a curtain drenched in blue then magenta light hiding the performers. Then the curtain drops and the women start to move. Within seconds the entire apparatus plummeted 35 feet to the ground landing on another performer below.

Circus trucks outside the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence where performers fell in an accident.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

Workers rush to the scene, the lights go down. In the video you hear an audience member ask, “are they supposed to fall like that?” As the audience was trying to figure out what had happened, firefighter Scott Derry was on the ground taking care of the injured. “They were in shock, they didn’t expect their equipment to fail,” said Derry.

Nine were injured. There were multiple fractures, legs, wrists, necks. The apparatus hit a man on the ground causing blood to gush from his head. The injured were treated and at the hospital within a half hour. Police Sgt. Sean Carroll was also helping the injured. “One of the girls looked up at me and very calmly and sadly said, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’”

So what happened?

It appears that a D-shaped ring called a carabiner, the only thing holding the performers up – snapped. The clip was found in three pieces. It was rated to hold 10,000 pounds, far more than the estimated 1,500 pounds it was holding at the time of the accident.

At a press conference Monday investigators with the Providence Fire Department said a single clamp holding up the performers snapped.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

The equipment belongs to the circus, was installed and tested by their people. Firefighter Paul Doughty is helping with the investigation. “They report to us that it was visually inspected before the performance and before every performance,” said Doughty. “They practice a number of times at each location, and their statement to us is that it was visually inspected as routine as part of their process before each time the apparatus is put into play.”

Two of the acrobats were in critical condition on Monday and family members tell the Associated Press that injuries include a pierced liver along with neck and back fractures. Stephen Payne, spokesman for Ringling’s parent company Feld Entertainment, said one person has been released from the hospital.

“We’re giving the performers and their families the support that they need and we hope that they will be able to return to us soon. This is not something we want to rush,” said Payne, “we want them to take their time and feel healthy. But I do know that many of these performers have already said they’re looking forward to getting back to work, we’ll welcome them back with open arms when they’re ready.”

The circus, said Payne, is more than a job.  It’s a working town that travels together as one big family. Sunday’s accident has rocked this circus family. “It really is an instance where your family member has been hurt. It really is upsetting but our people also know the injured performers would want us to go on and continue to bring the greatest show on earth to cities on this tour,” said Payne.

And they will continue on. While all of the Providence shows were canceled, Payne says the circus train leaves without its eight performers today for Hartford where the show will go on starting Thursday.

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