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Snapped clip suspected in U.S. circus hair-hanging stunt gone wrong

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Investigators suspect that a snapped clip sent eight acrobats plummeting to the ground during a daring U.S. performance, an experience one injured performer's family compared to a "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 in the air, fire officials said. After the accident, the 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."

All eight of the acrobats 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 last two acrobats in critical condition were upgraded to serious condition Monday night. Four of the acrobats were in good condition and four in serious.

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.

"We are hopeful that all of these performers will achieve a full recovery and be able to return to the show at some point," Payne said.

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 was the in the centre of the apparatus and was upside down when it fell, her father said.

"It was like a plunge into darkness," he said.

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.

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 12 metres.

Video by audience members shows a curtain dropping to reveal the eight women hanging from the apparatus. Seconds later, as they begin to perform, the women fall, and the apparatus lands on them.

The women landed on a rubber floor covering that isn't meant as a safety backup, Payne said.

The hair-hanging stunt is described on the circus' website as being the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Andrey and Viktoriya Medeiros. The woman is among the injured.

The equipment had 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.

The carabiner had a 10,000-pound (4.5-tonne) 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.

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