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Circus replacing equipment after aerialists’ plunge

Won’t reprise ‘hair hang’ in Conn. performances

PROVIDENCE — The Ringling Bros. circus will replace all metal clips used in its shows before reopening later this week after one of the clips snapped during a performance Sunday, sending a suspended prop and eight aerialists crashing about 20 feet to the floor.

On Monday, investigators identified the failure of the 4-inch metal clip, known as a carabiner, as the likely cause of the stunning collapse. The fastener, which helped support an umbrella-shaped frame that suspended the performers, was found in three pieces on the ground, said Providence fire officials.

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“All that I can say with certainty is that the carabiner failed,” said Fire Department investigator Paul Doughty.

The father of Widny Neves, a 25-year-old performer who was injured Sunday, said the aerialists know the dangers of their profession.

“We work this way, and we take the risk,” said Roiter Neves, 50, himself a lifelong performer who is now retired. “It’s like a lot of other professions, like race car drivers and gymnasts. . . . Usually it doesn’t happen, but sometimes, [it] happens.”

Investigators said they were working to determine how the fastener failed so dramatically. The piece of equipment was designed to handle just over 10,000 pounds; the rigging used in the performance weighed only 1,500, fire officials said.

Officials said they did not know how old the clip was or whether it was potentially weakened from use. Doughty said the circus told him the clip had been in use since September. The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration is investigating the collapse, which shocked a Sunday afternoon crowd at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, held at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.

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Doughty said OSHA officials may perform additional tests on the broken clip.

A spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the circus, said it was reviewing the accident and planned to replace all carabiners as a precaution. Circus staff members, who are responsible for the safety of the acts, had inspected the rigging when it was installed last week and found no issues in the days since then, Feld’s spokesman said.

“There had been no problems,” said Stephen Payne, the spokesman for Feld.

Crews test the structure many times to make sure it is sound, Payne said, and performers typically conduct their own safety checks before shows.

The circus will resume May 8 in Hartford, he said, but will not include the “hair hang” act the acrobats were performing when the structure collapsed. The act, first performed in January, involves a troupe of performers who hang in a circle by their hair to form the shape of a chandelier.

The act was created by Andrey Medeiros, the Brazilian-born circus performer whose wife was among the injured.

The circus had received the necessary operating permits from the city, said the mayor’s office in Providence. The circus was “solely responsible” for making sure the setup and rigging was safe, city officials said.

Specialists said the accident appears to have been caused by faulty equipment, although human error should not be ruled out.

“My immediate instinct is that this is a catastrophic equipment failure,” said David Grindle, executive director for the US Institute for Theatre Technology, the national association for design and production professionals in the performing arts and entertainment industry.

Grindle said that circus structures like the one that collapsed have no local or state oversight, and the circus is solely responsible for ensuring safety, a duty they perform well, he said.

Ken Martin, a safety consultant for circuses and other entertainment venues, said circuses are generally safety-conscious, realizing their reputation depends on it. Ringling is regarded as a leader in the industry, he said.

According to news reports, a number of Ringling circus performers have been injured in recent years.

In September, an acrobat was injured in a show in Iowa when she fell some 30 feet, and in 2011 a Romanian acrobat was hurt when she overshot her target while doing a double somersault, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. In 2004, an aerialist died during a performance in Minnesota, falling 30 feet to her death.

“These catastrophic failures are few and far between,” said Martin.

Two of the injured performers, Dayana Costa and Julissa Segrera, remained in critical condition Monday. Performers Stefany Neves, Viktorila Liakhova, and Viktoriya Medeiros were in serious condition, and Samantha Pitard, Svitlana Balanicheva, and Widny Neves were in good condition, Rhode Island Hospital said.

Circus performers, some carrying flowers, were seen going in and out of the hospital throughout the day.

Fire Chief Clarence Cunha said the injuries included compound fractures, bone breaks, head injuries, and internal injuries, but no one was knocked unconscious by the accident.

A man who was struck by the apparatus when it fell has been released from the hospital, Cunha said. He was able to walk around after being struck, firefighters said.

The performers were stunned after the collapse, firefighters said. “They weren’t saying too much,” said Providence firefighter Scott Derry. “They were basically just crying and just kind of in shock.”

On Facebook, a cousin of Julissa Segrera posted an update saying that Segrera’s back and hip had been injured in the fall.

“Pray that this doesn’t affect her walking abilities,” she wrote.

In becoming a Ringling acrobat, Samantha Pitard was fulfilling a lifelong dream, a friend said. She had first worked at the circus as a clown, but jumped at the chance to take to the air.

“She always wanted to be an aerialist,” said Elsie Smith, the artistic director for New England Center for Circus Arts, where Pitard went to school a few years ago. “She was just head over heels in love with the circus.”

Joining the “hair hang” act earlier this year was “an incredible honor,” Smith said.

Smith said she exchanged messages with Pitard in the hospital and said she seemed to be in good spirits. She had suffered a broken bone and was in good condition, she said.

Although serious accidents are rare, circus performers are well aware of the dangers they face, Smith said. “We don’t go into this not being aware of the risks.”

Roiter Neves, father of one of the injured performers, knows the danger firsthand, from his own painful experience: In 1989, when he was 25, the same age his daughter is now, he suffered a similar fall from a height of 40 feet, he said, breaking both his feet and legs. It took years for him to make a full recovery. Eventually, he returned to work with the circus, where he had begun performing when he was 11.

Neves, who has since retired, said his daughter has a broken arm and suffered back and neck injuries in the accident Sunday and is expected to miss several months of work while she undergoes physical therapy. Neves said his wife will travel from Brazil to Providence Tuesday to be with their daughter.

A performer with a lineage that goes back generations, Widny Neves followed in the footsteps of her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather when she chose a life in the circus, Roiter Neves said.

“Of course I worry, and her mother worries, but what can we do?” Neves said. “This is the circus life.”

Neves said he does not blame Ringling Brothers, which he called “the best circus in the world.”

“Whoever made the hook that broke — this is the problem,” he said.

More important, though, is that his daughter will be OK.

“I’m very happy she’s alive,” he said.

Jenna Russell of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Catalina Gaitan contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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