Investigators suspect that a snapped clip sent eight aerial acrobats plummeting 20 feet or more during a daring act in which performers dangle from their hair. One injured performer told her father she didn't notice anything amiss before her "plunge into darkness."
The clip, a common type called a carabiner that's used for everything from rock climbing to holding keyrings, was one of several pieces at the top of a chandelier-like apparatus that suspended the performers, fire officials said. After the accident, the 4- to 5-inch steel clip was found in three pieces on the ground with its spine snapped.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare stopped short of saying the carabiner caused Sunday's accident at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus, witnessed by about 3,900 people, many of them children. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is trying to make a final determination.
"We don't know if it was metal fatigue, if it wasn't properly positioned or something else," Pare said. "We just don't know."
Two of the acrobats were in critical condition Monday and all eight were still hospitalized with injuries including a pierced liver and neck and back fractures, as well as head injuries. None of the injuries appear to be life-threatening, said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company.
The women are from the United States, Brazil, Bulgaria and Ukraine, the circus said. A dancer on the ground was also injured and was released from the hospital Sunday.
Roitner Neves, the father of one of the injured women, Widny Neves, said she broke her right arm and suffered back and neck fractures. Widny Neves, who had been traveling with the circus for more than four years, was in the center of the apparatus and was upside down when it fell, her father said.
"She didn't notice anything strange," Roitner Neves said. "It was like a plunge into darkness."
She is 25 and from Joinville, Brazil, where her family owns a circus academy.
"In this profession, you run the risk of being injured," Roitner Neves said. "It's like being a race car driver or a gymnast. There's always the risk."
Two women, Dayana Costa and Julissa Segrera, were listed in critical condition. Another injured acrobat, Stefany Neves, fractured both ankles and had her liver pierced by her ribs, her sister Renata Neves told TV Globo's G1, a Brazilian Internet news portal. She was in serious condition.
Police Sgt. Sean Carroll said one performer looked up at him after the accident and said calmly, "I can't feel my legs."
The performers -- called "hairialists" -- hang from their hair during the act, which includes choreography and spinning, hanging from hoops, and rolling down wrapped silks while suspended as high as 40 feet.
During the show, a curtain dropped to reveal the eight women hanging from the apparatus. Seconds later, as they began to perform, the women fell, and the apparatus landed on them.
The women landed on a rubber floor covering that isn't meant as a safety backup, Payne said.
The equipment has been used dozens of times per week since the beginning of the year, and a circus crew had installed it last week, Payne said. The crew also inspects it, he said, and performers generally check their own rigging.
Feld said Monday that it did not know why the carabiner failed, and that it is replacing each one in the show before the next performance, on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The hair act will not be performed there, the company said.
The carabiner had a 10,000-pound rating, and the circus reported the performers and apparatus were 1,500 pounds, said Paul Doughty, of the Providence Fire Department. State and city officials have no role in inspecting such equipment, authorities said.
OSHA records show just a handful of investigations of the circus in the past two decades.
Last year, a federal jury in Virginia awarded two brothers a $114,400 judgment. The brothers, who do a juggling act on horseback, argued that Ringling ignored concerns about placing the horse act immediately after a tiger act, saying the horses were spooked by the presence and scent of the tigers, creating a safety risk. Feld is appealing the verdict.
In 2004, a Ringling aerial acrobat using scarves was killed after the material gave way and she fell 30 feet to a concrete floor. That accident was not investigated by OSHA because the risk was part of the act, the agency said at the time.