Circus acrobats injured when apparatus fails in Rhode Island


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 nine 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 described as a “human chandelier,” which holds up performers hanging by their hair, unexpectedly gave way and sent them hurtling to the ground, officials said.

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

Photo Gallery from WPRI

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. (AP Photo/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. (AP Photo/Frank Caprio)

A spokesman for Rhode Island Hospital said the accident sent 11 individuals to its emergency room. Six of them were admitted to the hospital, and one was in critical condition as of Sunday evening. Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré initially said 15 to 20 circus performers were hurt in the accident.

The accident happened at the 11 a.m. 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 – shows the performers first being lifted into the air, and then seconds later hurtling to the ground.

“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.”

As stunned audience members looked on, at least 10 ambulances from Providence and surrounding areas arrived at the scene to treat the injured performers.

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

Paré 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.

“The circus is solely responsible for the setup and rigging of the show,” a Providence Police spokeswoman said in a statement.

The police said 3,900 adults and children were in the audience for the Sunday morning circus performance.

The Ringling Bros. circus arrived in town Friday with its “Legends” show, which was scheduled to run through Monday. By Sunday afternoon the circus had canceled three of the four remaining performances.

A spokesman for Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said Ringling Bros. took out an entertainment license from the city to put on the circus show as required.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is owned and operated by Feld Entertainment Inc., which is headquartered in Palmetto, Florida. Other live-performance franchises produced by Feld 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.

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