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Failed clamp caused Rhode Island circus acrobats' plunge: officials

Emergency personnel attend to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performers who were injured when the scaffolding they were performing from collapsed in Providence, Rhode Island, May 4, 2014. 
CREDIT: REUTERS/ALETHA WOOD
Emergency personnel attend to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performers who were injured when the scaffolding they were performing from collapsed in Providence, Rhode Island, May 4, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/ALETHA WOOD

By Ross Kerber

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - A chandelier-like circus rigging carrying eight performers plummeted to the floor when the single steel clamp that suspended it failed, officials investigating the Providence, Rhode Island, incident said on Monday.

When the clamp failed, acrobats suspended by their hair plunged to the ground in front of an audience of about 3,900. Eight performers remained hospitalized, two in critical condition, on Monday following the Sunday collapse during a Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance.

The steel carabiner clamp was the sole support of the welded steel rigging developed by husband-and-wife team Andre and Viktoria Medeiros, the latter of whom was among the eight people to fall.

Paul Doughty, investigator for the Providence Fire Department, said it was not immediately clear why the carabiner, which was found broken into three pieces, failed.

"In terms of the weight carrying capacity of the performance, it was within its criteria," Doughty said. "There are dynamic forces that are involved."

The five-inch long carabiner was designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds (4,535 kg), far more weight than the 1,500 pounds (680 kg) suspended at the time of Sunday's collapse, Doughty told reporters. Movement of the rig, or of the performers, could have increased the force on the carabiner.

Feld Entertainment, which owns the Ringling Bros circus, said it was still studying the cause of the collapse.

"We will continue to inspect all of our equipment on our touring shows, and we are replacing every carabiner on this unit before the next performance," it said in a statement.

In addition to the two performers in critical condition, two were in serious condition and four in good condition, according to a spokeswoman for Rhode Island Hospital, where the acrobats were brought after the collapse. Another performer was treated and released on Sunday.

The eight hospitalized performers are Viktoria Medeiros, Widny Neves, Samantha Pitard, Viktorila Liakhova, Dayana Costa, Julissa Segrera, Stefany Neves and Svitlana Balanicheva, hospital officials said.

"The injuries were severe on some of the performers, but none appear to be life threatening at this time," Feld spokesman Stephen Payne said in an email.

The acrobats fell about 40 feet to the floor, hurting one performer on the ground and stunning the audience, some of whom were initially unsure if the drop was part of the act.

Video of the act showed the women falling quietly. The lights were dimmed right after the drop.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the cause of the collapse, a spokesman said.

"As with any OSHA inspection, its purpose will be to determine whether or not there were any violations of workplace safety standards in connection with this incident," said the spokesman, Andre Bowser, adding that the agency could not estimate how long its investigation would take.

'HIGH BURDEN OF PROOF'

OSHA has six months to investigate the accident and could then issue citations to the company if it finds any legal violations. The agency has a high bar to prove that the circus company violated workplace safety standards, employment law experts said.

"That's a high burden of proof," said Edwin Foulke, a former OSHA official who now serves as an attorney at law firm Fisher & Phillips.

It would have to show the company knew the equipment that held the performers was faulty, that it failed to perform proper inspections, or that the company violated safety standards accepted throughout the industry, he said.

Circuses have been cited for very few OSHA violations over the past several years, he said.

"They recognize what they do is dangerous," Foulke said. "It's been my experience that they are very, very safe."

OSHA can fine the company up to $70,000 for each "willful" violation. It can also ask a company to abate any safety violations it sees, which can affect the structure of a performance.

In 2010, for example, after a killer whale trainer at a SeaWorld park was drowned after being pulled into a pool by an orca, OSHA ordered SeaWorld to physically separate the trainers from the orcas during performances, drastically altering the set-up of a marquee event at the wildlife park.

Outside the arena where the circus incident occurred, people who had held tickets for the canceled performances trickled in to collect refunds.

Anthony Fagundes, a funeral director from Cranston, Rhode Island, said he had been watching the show with his wife and grandsons, ages 2 and 3, when the women fell.

"It was like a jinx ... We were all kind of stunned," Fagundes said, adding that he had struggled to answer his older grandson's questions about why the show had been suspended.

Feld said on Monday that the show would travel on to Hartford, Connecticut, on Tuesday for performances scheduled for later this week.

(Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner and Carlyn Kolker in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; editing by Andrew Hay and Peter Galloway)

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