Several circus acrobats injured during show in Rhode Island

The scene of an accident at a circus in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 4, 2014.

Last Updated May 4, 2014 5:05 PM EDT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - A platform collapsed during an aerial hair-hanging stunt at a circus performance Sunday, sending eight acrobats plummeting to the ground as the audience watched in horror. Nine performers were seriously injured in the fall, including a dancer below, while several others suffered less serious injuries.

The accident was reported about 45 minutes into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' 11 a.m. "Legends" show at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence.

In this photo provided by Frank Caprio, performers hang during an aerial hair-hanging stunt at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Friday, May 2, 2104, in Providence, R.I. A platform collapsed during an aerial hair-hanging stunt at the 11 a.m. performance Sunday, May 4, sending eight acrobats plummeting to the ground.
Frank Caprio/AP
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., said the accident happened during an act in which eight performers hang "like a human chandelier" using their hair.

He said the metal-frame apparatus from which the performers were hanging came free from the metal truss it was connected to. The eight women fell 25 to 40 feet, landing on a dancer on the ground.

"They were hanging by their hair," Rick Capuano, an audience member from Warwick, told CBS affiliate WPRI. "All the girls hanging by their hair, and then it just falls to the ground and the big metal thing above them hits all of them."

All the performers have been doing "some variation of this act for some time," Payne said, though he didn't know how long. The current incarnation of the act began in January with the launch of the show, he said.

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said officials and inspectors haven't yet determined what caused the accident. He told CBS affiliate WPRI that a total of 15 to 20 performers were hurt in the accident. He said none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

Roman Garcia, general manager of the "Legends" show, asked people to pray for the performers.

"Everybody's doing fine, everybody's at the hospital, everybody's conscious, everybody's doing pretty well," he said at the Dunkin' Donuts Center less than two hours after the accident.

Rhode Island Hospital in Providence admitted 11 patients with varying injuries, including one in critical condition, spokeswoman Jill Reuter said.

The hair-hanging stunt is described on the circus' website as a "larger-than-life act" featuring eight female performers.

"These 'hairialists' perform a combination of choreography and cut-ups including spinning, hanging from hoops, and rolling down wrapped silks, all while being suspended 35 feet in the air by their hair alone," the website says. "In this hair-raising act, audiences will even see the weight of three girls held aloft by the locks of only one of these tangled beauties."

Video taken by audience members showed a curtain coming down, and several performers hanging around 25 feet in the air from an apparatus suspended from above. Seconds later, as they began to perform, the women fell and the metal apparatus landed on them.

"It just went crashing down," said audience member Sydney Bragg, 14, of North Kingstown. "Everyone was freaking out. We heard this huge clatter and then we just heard the girls scream."

She said spotlights were on the performers at the time, but all the lights went out after the fall.

Rosa Viveiros, right, from Seekonk, Mass., along with her niece Lily Lannon, 9, left, describe the accident that happened during the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance, Sunday, May 4, 2014, in Providence, R.I.
Stew Milne, AP
Rosa Viveiros of Seekonk, Mass., said she saw that the acrobats had fallen on top of at least one other performer on the ground, a man who stood up with his face bloodied. The acrobats remained still and did not get up, she said.

"We thought it was part of the circus," said her husband, Joe.

The couple attended the circus with their 6-year-old grandson and 9-year-old niece.

"Everyone was in shock," Rosa Viveiros said. "It was pretty overwhelming to see that."

Another audience member said it was immediately clear that what happened was not part of the act.

"I screamed. I'm like, that's not right," Chelie Barrie of Mystic, Conn., told WPRI. "Sometimes you're surprised and it's part of the show but this clearly wasn't. It's quite a shame."

The circus began performances in Providence on Friday. The Dunkin' Donuts Center canceled two shows scheduled for later Sunday.

A Ringling Bros. aerial performer was killed in 2004 in St. Paul, Minn., when she was twirling 30 feet in the air on long chiffon scarves and the material gave way.