PROVIDENCE — Two acrobats who plummeted about 20 feet to the ground during a circus hair-hanging act suffered spinal cord injuries so severe that it is unclear whether they will be able to perform or even walk again, doctors who are treating them said Wednesday.
The women were among eight performers suspended by their hair when a steel fastener gave way Sunday, causing the apparatus they were hanging from to collapse during a performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
Another performer sustained a critical spine fracture that required surgery, said Dr. Adetokunbo Oyelese, a neurosurgeon.
“The injuries were significant enough that they were not moving their legs when first they came in,” Oyelese said during a news conference at Rhode Island Hospital.
“To varying degrees, there has been a little bit of improvement in one or two of those patients, but we won’t know what the ultimate recovery will be for probably close to a year.”
The women with spinal cord damage also hurt their extremities, including one with a thigh bone injury and another with injuries to her sacrum, lower spine, and pelvis, Oyelese said. He said they were positioned on the outside of the formation when they fell.
The hair-hang act was supposed to look like a “human chandelier.” None of the women sustained serious head injuries, including two who were hanging upside down from the middle of the formation, doctors said.
“It could have been much worse,” said Dr. Roman Hayda, an orthopedic surgeon.
An investigation by Providence officials found a steel carabiner clip used to support the apparatus had failed, said Paul Doughty, a fire department investigator.
He said possible reasons for the failure include improper rigging, an overloaded carabiner, or a manufacturing defect.
Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the circus, said it does not know whether the carabiner failure was solely responsible for the accident. An official with direct knowledge of the investigation said the carabiner was sold by a California company called Fusion Climb.
Fusion’s chief executive did not return messages seeking comment.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating, an agency spokesman said.
The circus is expected to resume performances of its “Legends” show Thursday in Hartford. The hair-hang act will not be included.
Nine performers were hospitalized after Sunday’s accident, including one who suffered a head laceration when the apparatus fell to the ground, officials said. He was released from the hospital Sunday.
Another performer, Samantha Pitard, was released from the hospital Tuesday.
The seven performers who remain hospitalized include Dayana Costa, Stefany Neves, and Julissa Segrera, who are listed in serious condition, the hospital said. Viktoriya Medeiros is in fair condition.
At the request of the patients, no information is being released about the conditions of Svitlana Balanicheva, Viktorila Liakhova, and Widny Neves, the hospital said.
A total of 17 operations have been performed on eight performers, said Dr. David Harrington, a trauma surgeon at the hospital. The injuries included a liver laceration and open fractures.
None of the patients still in the hospital can walk on her own, and one must undergo another surgery, which will likely happen next week, doctors said.
“I don’t know if all of them are going to be acrobats,” Hayda said. “That’s an extremely demanding job. Our goal is to get them there.”
Some of the performers will be hospitalized for at least a week, and will then require months of rehabilitation and physical therapy, the doctors said.
Johnathan Lee Iverson, the circus ringmaster, said that after introducing the act on Sunday, he heard a pop.
“I could see the terror in their faces,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was so quick, and it was shocking. It was horrible. My heart sank right into my feet because I just assumed they were a few fatalities.”
After the apparatus fell, Iverson said, he approached one of the acrobats.
“All of them were in shock, and all of them were concerned about their colleagues,” he said. “They probably thought what everyone assumed: Someone’s dead.”
Iverson said that when the circus resumes its performances in Connecticut, he will take a moment to acknowledge the injured performers.
He also predicted the performers will return to the circus.
“Sawdust is in their veins,” he said. “Our girls are the crème de la crème. They are our legends, and they are going to come back.”Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.