Performers injured in Rhode Island circus equipment collapse

NEW YORK - Eight circus acrobats were seriously injured when they fell at least 25 feet (8 meters) to the ground after an aerial apparatus collapsed during a performance in Rhode Island on Sunday, shocking a packed house of spectators.

About 10 other performers were also injured in the accident which happened around noon during a performance by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, the Providence Fire Department said.

The acrobats, all women, had just begun a "hair hang"performance, swinging through midair tethered by their hair, when the equipment holding them collapsed, said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers.

The women were hanging from different heights and fell between 25 and 40 feet (8 and 12 meters) to the ground. A performer on the floor was also badly injured, fire officials said.

Because the performers were attached to the equipment and could not let go, a safety net below was not required, Payne said.

There was no immediate description of the kinds of injuries the performers suffered. All were expected to survive.

A video taken by spectator Aletha Wood, who was at the circus with her two young children, 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.

As the ringmaster said, "Suspended only by the strength of ...," the structure gave way and crashed to the floor.

Workers and emergency personnel rushed to the acrobats, with a gurney arriving a couple of minutes later after lights were dimmed.

Wood said the collapse stunned the audience. "It was a pretty packed house," she said. "There was a metal disc hanging from the ceiling and it looked like it was being held by a single cable."

The performers did not scream as they fell, but there was a"collective gasp" from spectators who were unsure at first whether the collapse was part of the act or an accident, Wood said.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a statement that its inspectors were at the scene to determine if there had been any violations of safety standards.

Payne, the Feld spokesman, said the company was working with authorities and its own safety team to find out what happened and to make sure the apparatus was safe. "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," he said in an email.

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.