Eight acrobats were seriously injured when they tumbled at least 25 feet to the ground after an aerial apparatus collapsed during a circus performance in Rhode Island on Sunday, the circus company's owners said.
About 10 other performers were also injured in the accident, which happened about noon during a performance by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, the Providence Fire Department said.
The acrobats, all female, had just begun a "hair hang," performance, swinging through midair tethered by their hair, when the equipment holding them collapsed, according to Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros.
The women, who were hanging from different heights, fell between 25 and 40 feet to the ground, and a performer on the floor was also badly injured, fire officials said.
Because the performers were attached to the equipment and could not let go of it, a safety net below was not required, Payne said.
There was no immediate description of the kinds of injuries the performers suffered but all were expected to survive.
Aletha Wood, who was at the circus with her two young children, said the collapse happened quickly, stunning the audience.
"It was a pretty packed house," she said. "There was a metal disc hanging from the ceiling and it looked like it was being held by a single cable. The ringmaster had just said 'hanging by a single string,' when the cable snapped and the women came down," she said.
The performers did not scream as they fell, but there was a "collective gasp" from spectators who were unsure at first whether the collapse was part of the act or an accident, Wood said.
Seconds later, emergency and medical officials descended on the scene, she said.
The cause of the collapse was under investigation.
"We are working with local authorities and our safety team to find out what happened and to make sure the apparatus is safe for our performers," Payne said.
In 2011, Feld Entertainment paid $270,000 to settle charges by the Department of Agriculture that Ringling animals were mistreated.
The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agreed in 2012 to pay $9.3 million to Feld Entertainment to settle a lawsuit brought by the company in response to dismissed legal claims that Ringling mistreated elephants.