Investigators are focusing on a failed carabiner designed to connect a team of acrobats to the ceiling to explain why a popular circus act abruptly ended with nine people injured in Rhode Island.
The inquiry into the accident is being led by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigates workplace issues. Both Rhode Island authorities and officials for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Legends show are also looking into the accident.
The act involves eight women who hang by their hair like a human chandelier in a poised and perfect formation. The women seemed to be suspended from an umbrella-shaped apparatus attached to a fixed support. The device hangs from a carabiner, a gated ring that opens and closes. It is a type of device familiar to rock climbers, among others.
"It seems as though a carabiner failed and appears to have caused the platform to fail and the performers to fall down," Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. Officials are still looking at why the carabiner failed, he said.
Pare said the apparatus is installed by circus workers, not local contractors from the Dunkin' Donuts Center where the circus was performing Sunday. There were no problems detected by riggers when the device was installed, Pare said.
"The circus has a long history of safety," Pare said. "They have been coming here for over 40 years."
Pare said there appeared to be no criminality in the accident.
In an email to reporters, OSHA said it is continuing its investigation.
"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," the agency said. "If the inspection identifies violations, then OSHA could issue citations and propose fines for the employer."
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, said "it is premature to say exactly" what caused the accident, but circus officials agree that a carabiner in the rigging failed. All of the remaining shows in Rhode Island have been canceled and the hair acrobatic act will not be performed when the show resumes in Connecticut.
"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," Feld Entertainment stated.
The eight performers fell 30 to 40 feet on top of a ninth, all of whom were injured, Payne said. Eight have been hospitalized, two in critical, three in serious and three in good condition. One has been released, he said.
"Thankfully there are no life-threatening injuries," Payne said.
The accident took place about 45 minutes into the circus performance and was witnessed by an audience of about 3,900, many of them children.