Update 5/6/14 7:12 AM PST. Goods news from Providence. Of eight performers still in the hospital, none are listed in critical condition.
What happened yesterday in Providence at a performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is something a circus crowd has possibly never before witnessed: the utter collapse of a rigging that dangled eight hair hanging aerialists from it.
I can't recall ever, during my lifetime taking in many circuses, watching the failure of an aerial structure on this scale. In fact, I do not recall witnessing any riggings fall to the ground.
A flying trapeze rigging going down? When? Where? A high wire and the pedestals losing anchor and collapsing over a ring or onto a hippodrome track. When?
Perhaps that is what made the fall of eight aerialists even more horrifying to behold.
Aerialists take many risks, perhaps the greatest risk they face, not the failure of their own skills, but of the riggings they rely upon to demonstrate their dazzling accomplishments to the public.
Lillian Leitzel fell to her death in Copenhagen, the victim of a cable connection that crystallized and broke
Another legend, Rose Gold, took a terrible fall, but recovered, due to a camera going off, the flash distracting her concentration.
The multi-talented Elvin Bale, an all-time great in the air, flew out of a "human" cannon in Hong Kong that had been incorrectly tested before the show, over reached the net, and was left paralyzed for life.
You could argue that Karl Wallenda’s wire-walking talents did not fail him when he tumbled to his death over a Puerto Rico street. A sudden gust of wind tossed the wire about, in effect undermining the steady foundation he could count on during a conventional performance under a tent or indoors.
Return trapeze flyers take big risks, from career-ending injury to death itself, by merely falling into the net when failing to make connections aloft.
I would be willing to venture that perhaps a slight majority of injuries incurred by aerial daredevils were due to rigging malfunctions, not to error on their part.
The spectacle of so many performers going down together is possibly unprecedented. The closest incident that comes to mind would be the seven wire-walking Wallendas slipping from the wire (caused by human error), then struggling to spare themselves by clinging to the wire and to each other while prop hands below scrambled to spread an emergency net. When it was over, two members of the troupe were dead, another confined to a wheel chair for life.
When a flyer falls, it is a heart-wrenching sight. I have witnessed it only once, maybe twice in my life. On each occasion, only one artist fell -- and the rigging did not follow him.
What I saw on the news yesterday at first looked almost surreal -- as if a part of the act -- but then turned into a horrific revelation.
My heart goes out to those women, wishing them all a speedy and complete recovery.