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Society

Florida Tightrope Tumble Injures Five

February 9, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was supposed to be the headline act for Circus Sarasota: a high-wire pyramid some 30 feet in the air.

But during practice Feb. 8 — two days before the show’s opening — an accident befell the eight performers. According to authorities, five lost their balance and tumbled to the ground.

The stunt involved famed tightrope walker Nik Wallenda, but he wasn’t among the injured, authorities said.

“He caught himself,” county spokeswoman Ashley Lusby said.

Sarasota Fire-Rescue spokesman Drew Winchester said the group fell 30 or more feet, and four of the injured suffered trauma. Three were brought to one hospital and the other two, to other hospitals.

All three brought to Sarasota Memorial Hospital are expected to survive, said Dr. Alan Brockhurst, the trauma medical director.

“One of them currently is in operating room; two, in the ICU,” he said Wednesday afternoon.

One is in guarded condition. The circus is still expected to open under the white and red tent Feb. 10, organizers said. A different act will take the tightrope walkers’ places.

Pedro Reis, founder and CEO of the Sarasota Circus Arts Conservatory, which puts on the show, said during a news conference that nothing was wrong with the rigging but that some performers lost their balance. He said the circus will open as planned.

“The show must go on,” he said.

It is unclear whether there was any sort of safety net or tether. Lusby said she wasn’t sure and referred questions to Circus Sarasota; a call to the circus was not immediately returned.

In previous daredevil performances — such as crossing a tightrope stretched across the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon — Nik Wallenda did not use a safety net or tether.

Sarasota is a mecca for circus performers. Much of the reason there are so many circus performers in the area is due to the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus making its home in the Gulf Coast city during the winter, starting 90 years ago.

Nik Wallenda and his family live in Sarasota and often perform in and around the region. He and his troupe were the headliners of Circus Sarasota.

This is not the first tragedy strike the pre-eminent family of tightrope walkers. Patriarch Karl Wallenda died in a fall during a stunt in 1978 in Puerto Rico. Two other family members also died decades ago while performing.

Nik Wallenda said he trains like an athlete and calculates his risks for every stunt.

“I respect deeply what I do and realize there’s a lot of danger in it,” he told The Associated Press during a 2013 interview.

In 2013, Wallenda successfully crossed the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon, which was televised by the Discovery Channel.

In 2012, Wallenda was the first person to cross a tightrope over the brink of Niagara Falls. Other daredevils have crossed the water farther downstream but no one had walked a wire over the river since 1896. He did use a safety tether for that walk.

The Wallendas trace their roots to 1780 in Austria-Hungary, when their ancestors traveled as a band of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, animal trainers and a bit later, trapeze artists.

(TAMARA LUSH)

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