A rehearsal for a dramatic eight-person pyramid went horribly wrong, injuring five high-wire circus performers who tumbled about 25 feet, said officials in Sarasota, Florida.
Four were hospitalized as trauma patients.
Renowned daredevil Nik Wallenda — a member of the famed aerialist family — was among three performers on the wire who were not injured, said officials from the Circus Arts Conservatory, which presents Circus Sarasota. A Wallenda family member was injured, officials said.
Pedro Reis, founder and CEO of the Circus Arts Conservatory, said the eight were rehearsing in preparation for the show, which opens Friday. Circus officials said the rigging did not collapse and equipment did not fail.
“If somebody loses a balance … then something can go wrong,” Reis said. “And I would say basically that’s what happened, that they lost their balance, because it’s all about balance on the high wire.”
Troupe was reaching for new heights
Wallenda — who wowed audiences when he crossed tightropes over landmarks like the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the downtown Chicago skyline — was the anchor at the back of the pyramid, according to Reis. Wallenda did not fall, Reis said.
Reis said the trick is difficult and involves a lot of momentum. The Wallenda troupe had rehearsed the stunt several times, circus officials said.
The pyramid has been performed before, but not at the height the performers practiced, about 20 to 25 feet, Reis said.
Jennifer Mitchell, Circus Arts Conservatory’s managing director, said it is “a Wallenda tradition” not to use a net for high-wire acts.
“We take safety very seriously at Circus Sarasota. We make sure safety precautions are adhered to,” Mitchell told reporters.
She added: “Despite that diligence within our industry, accidents do happen.”
The pyramid was to be the grand finale for Circus Sarasota’s 2017 winter production, which is called “Synergy.” Mitchell said officials are deciding what the finale will now be. The circus still plans to present a high-wire act.
Mitchell said she has spoken to Wallenda, who is expected to make a statement.
“It’s very important to him that we concentrate on the recovery of these artists,” Mitchell said.
Performers are ‘lucky’
Three performers were being treated at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where two were listed in critical condition and one in guarded condition, said Dr. Alan Brockhurst, medical director of the hospital’s trauma center. The three are expected to survive.
“They’re extremely lucky, given the height of the fall that they survived,” Brockhurst said.
Those being treated at Sarasota Memorial suffered mostly orthopedic injuries, and there was one traumatic brain injury, Brockhurst said.
Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier said one patient was taken to Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, which has a trauma center, and another performer was taken to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, also in Bradenton. He did not have information on their medical status.
Reis said he was thankful no one was killed.
“The circus is resilient. The circus people are resilient,” Reis said. “The show must go on.”
Wallenda trademark seven-person pyramid
The Wallenda family is a rich part of circus tradition. In 1948, members created a seven-person pyramid, which became their trademark.
Some performances, though, have been tragic.
In 1962, two troupe members died and one was paralyzed after a performer lost his footing as the Flying Wallendas attempted the seven-person pyramid at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit.
Twenty years later, the Wallendas tried the pyramid again in the same Detroit arena.
The act featured four members on one layer using poles to support two perched on a second layer who, in turn, support one performer on a top layer. The pyramid then moves across a high wire.
In 1978, Karl Wallenda, one of the original performers, died on a high-wire walk between two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.