Every single one of us in the troupe, every single circus performer, knows that they are risking their lives every time they go out there to perform or practice. We hope it doesn't happen, but we know that we are taking that risk, and we love it enough to take that risk every day to make people happy. —Samantha Pitard
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — One of eight circus acrobats who plunged to the ground during a hair-hanging act says she wants to get back in the ring, and she's hopeful her fellow acrobats will someday return with her. But the medical team treating them said Wednesday that two have spinal cord injuries, and only time will tell if they can ever walk again, let alone perform.
"I'm hoping to join back up with the tour and show the world that I'm OK, and I'm hoping some of the other girls will do the same," Samantha Pitard told The Associated Press after being released from a hospital Tuesday.
Pitard and seven other acrobats were performing an act described as a "human chandelier," hanging from an apparatus by their hair during a Sunday performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, when a clip at the top of the apparatus snapped, dropping them about 20 feet to the ground.
The other women remained at Rhode Island Hospital, where a dancer on the ground who was injured was treated and released Sunday. Several acrobats were still in intensive care, with injuries that included a laceration to the liver, broken bones and joints, and spinal fractures.
Neurosurgeon Adetokunbo Oyelese said the two most seriously injured can feel their legs but move them only minimally. While he is hopeful they will walk again, it could take one to two years before they do.
"This is going to require patience," he said.
Doctors said some of the women could be released within a few days. All will need physical therapy, which will take months, before they can perform. They have asked to be transferred to a rehabilitation facility as a team.
Orthopedic surgeon Roman Hayda said he didn't know whether the women could be acrobats again, but that the "goal is to get them there." He said the fact that the women were young and physically fit before the injuries would help their recovery.
Pitard, 23, a native of Champaign, Illinois, said she's the only one of the troupe who can walk on her own. But she said the others are in good spirits amid an outpouring of support, including get-well cards from children who witnessed the accident. About 3,900 people were in the audience.
"Every single one of us in the troupe, every single circus performer, knows that they are risking their lives every time they go out there to perform or practice," she said. "We hope it doesn't happen, but we know that we are taking that risk, and we love it enough to take that risk every day to make people happy."
Pitard said it had been a normal performance Sunday. The curtain dropped to reveal the eight women suspended in the air, but something went wrong when they did their third leg position.
"We heard just a big crack, huge noise, and then we were just plummeting to the ground," she said. "It was very fast."
The 350-pound chandelier landed on them. Pitard said crews got to them quickly to free them from the apparatus, then gave them medical attention.
"I was sitting up, and once I caught my breath, I was looking at all the girls," she said. "I wanted to know that everybody was OK. I saw my troupe leader, she was right next to me, and I heard her say that she couldn't feel her legs."
Pitard suffered fractures on her spine, a cut on her head that required three stitches and a bitten tongue.
Local investigators are turning over the broken clip and other material to federal workplace safety authorities. Fire investigator Paul Doughty said they have narrowed down the cause of the broken clip to two possibilities: a manufacturing defect or improper use.
The circus performs Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The hair act won't be performed there, said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company.
Pitard said she became interested in joining the circus as a child during a camp that offered a circus program.
She later attended the New England Center for Circus Arts and learned aerial acrobat skills. She joined Ringling Bros. as a clown in November 2012 and was invited to join the specialized hair-hanging act.
"You have to have the right hair and the right weight and the right muscle," she said.
She trained for months to develop the act being performed Sunday, which has the acrobats doing spins and other moves while hanging from their hair. Her favorite part is holding two other performers up with her hair.
"It's an amazing feeling to know I'm holding two girls, two grown women, by my hair," she said. "There's just something very, very cool about it."
She said the way they're hooked into the apparatus is so secure they don't even practice with a net. She doesn't believe a net would have lessened their injuries because the apparatus still would have fallen on them.
Timothy Babineau, CEO of the hospital's parent company, on Wednesday praised the acrobats' courage and positive attitude.
"They obviously love their work," he said. "They are determined to heal as quickly as possible to get back to doing what they love."
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