NEW YORK — A mid-air circus apparatus with acrobats suspended from it collapsed on Sunday during a performance in Rhode Island, injuring up to 20 people, nine seriously, and shocking a packed house of spectators.
The all-female team with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus crashed up to 40 feet (12 meters) to the floor when the rig tethering them by the hair gave way at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence.
The acrobats hit the ground just after starting their “hair hang” performance with the ringmaster telling the audience, “Suspended only by the strength of...,” according to a video posted online.
The performers did not scream as they fell, but there was a “collective gasp” from the 3,900 onlookers who were unsure at first whether the collapse was part of the act, said spectator Aletha Wood, who attended the show with her two children and took the video.
Providence Fire Chief Clarence Cunha said eight women and one man were seriously hurt, with injuries ranging from head wounds to broken bones.
A spokeswoman for Rhode Island Hospital gave different numbers, saying 11 people were treated in the emergency room and seven were admitted.
Wood said the collapse stunned the audience.
“It was a pretty packed house,” she said. “There was a metal disk hanging from the ceiling and it looked like it was being held by a single cable.”
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., said that because the performers were attached to the equipment and could not let go of it, a safety net was not required.
Wood's video showed the equipment and the performers at the start of the show hidden by a cloth cover lit by blue and red lights.
The cloth fell away to reveal the acrobats dressed in sequined costumes and hanging from a circular canopy apparently suspended by a cable. One of the performers was hanging beneath the rest.
The structure then suddenly crashed to the floor. Workers and emergency personnel rushed to the acrobats, with a stretcher arriving a couple of minutes later, after lights were dimmed.
A police spokeswoman said Ringling Bros. got the required city permits for the show, but the circus was responsible for its rigging and set-up.
The accident is being investigated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, state fire marshals and the city.
“Safety is our top priority, not just for our performers but also for our crew and all the families who come to see a Ringling Bros. performance,” Feld spokesman Payne said in an email.
Ringling's other two Sunday shows were canceled, along with Monday's 10:30 a.m. show.
As hundreds of spectators witnessed the accident, there is a possibility of claims being filed on behalf of children who could have been traumatized, said Lee Kaplan, a product liability lawyer in Houston.
Possible defendants ranged from the circus to the maker of the apparatus, Kaplan added. Performers often signed waivers that would limit their ability to sue the circus, he said.
Injured performers could file a workers' compensation claim against the circus, said Tom Lyons, a Providence lawyer. If a defective product was involved, they may have a claim against the manufacturer, he added.
Besides Ringling Bros., Feld Entertainment's productions include Disney On Ice, off-road motorcycle racing and monster truck shows.
In 2011, Feld Entertainment paid $270,000 to settle charges by the Department of Agriculture that Ringling animals were mistreated.
The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agreed in 2012 to pay $9.3 million to Feld Entertainment to settle a lawsuit brought by the company in response to dismissed legal claims that Ringling mistreated elephants.