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Circus returns to Rhode Island a year after hair-hanging accident badly injured 8 acrobats

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The last time Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performed in Rhode Island, eight acrobats suspended by their hair plummeted to the ground before a crowd of thousands. A single metal clip that held them 20 feet aloft had snapped. The women were badly hurt, some with spinal injuries so severe they could no longer walk.

This week, the circus is back in town, as Ringling Bros. begins a four-day run Thursday at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, where the accident happened May 4, 2014. The circus has made some changes since then, and officials are preparing themselves in case something else goes wrong this time around.

"There's always been death-defying acts. It's part of the show," said Lawrence Lepore, general manager of the Dunkin' Donuts Center. "I guess all of a sudden you realize that yeah, someone can die doing this."

One year on, the conditions of most of the women are unclear. One, Widny Neves, said she is better but still has a long road to recovery after suffering back and neck fractures and a broken arm. Lawyers representing Neves and the other acrobats did not return numerous requests for comment.

Andrey Medeiros, who conceived and developed the act for the circus with his wife, Viktoriya, told The Providence Journal that two of the women are still unable to walk.

Just one, Samantha Pitard, has returned to the circus as a performer, said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for the circus's parent company, Feld Entertainment Inc. He said she is working on a different circus unit and training to join another aerial act. She will not perform in Providence, Payne said.

The others are no longer employed by the company but are covered by its insurance, he said. Court papers show the seven have filed workers' compensation claims. They have also filed papers in state court requesting documents related to the accident and asking to interview several officials at Feld, based in Palmetto, Florida. Court papers describe it as a prelude to a lawsuit.

PHOTO: FILE - In this May 4, 2014 file photo, first responders work at the center ring after a platform collapsed during an aerial hair-hanging stunt at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus  in Providence, R.I.  The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is returning to Rhode Island a year after eight acrobats suspended by their hair plummeted 20 feet to the ground before thousands of spectators.  The circus begins its four-day run Thursday, April 30, 2015,  at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, where the accident happened.     (Bob Breidenbach/Providence Journal via AP) NO SALES
FILE - In this May 4, 2014 file photo, first responders work at the center ring after a platform collapsed during an aerial hair-hanging stunt at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Providence, R.I. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is returning to Rhode Island a year after eight acrobats suspended by their hair plummeted 20 feet to the ground before thousands of spectators. The circus begins its four-day run Thursday, April 30, 2015, at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, where the accident happened. (Bob Breidenbach/Providence Journal via AP) NO SALES

Last week, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it had reached a settlement agreement with Feld after it determined the carabiner clip that snapped had been loaded improperly. Under the agreement, all aerial acts in the circus will have to be reviewed by a registered professional engineer. Ringling Bros. will also have to develop a technical book and safety checklist for each act.

Payne said that has been done for the aerial acts performing this week, which include bungee skydiving and highwire acts. None of Ringling Bros.' circuses now feature hair-hanging acts.

He said they have also changed out all the carabiner clips with ones made by a different manufacturer.

"What we've said from the beginning is we want to make sure this doesn't happen again," Payne said.

The director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency, Col. Michael Borg, plans a meeting Tuesday with officials from the circus and the Dunkin' Donuts Center to review the event.

Lepore said ticket sales have been about what they usually are, and he is not concerned. Last year's accident was the first such problem in the 40 years the circus has been performing at his venue, he said.

Payne said this year's circus, Circus XTREME, will be one of the last times the audience will see elephants because the circus has decided to phase out elephant performances by 2018. He also touted their trampoline act, a camel-riding act and Gemma Kirby, the human cannonball.

"I think a lot of people are looking forward to us coming back to town," he said. "It's an amazing show."

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