LANCASTER, N.H. — New Hampshire's fire marshal said Tuesday it's not clear why a circus operator proceeded with a show minutes after the National Weather Service put out a severe storm warning. Winds of 60 mph winds collapsed the tent, killing two spectators and sending about 32 others to hospitals.
Bill Degnan said it's the responsibility of the circus operator to monitor the weather. The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 5:23 p.m. Monday. The show started seven minutes later at the Lancaster Fairgrounds, about 90 miles north of Concord. The storm blew through at 5:46 p.m., with about 100 people inside the tent.
"I see these very large metal poles that are in the ground and go through the top of the tent; I see them starting to come out of the ground and fly up, into the air toward us," witness Heidi Medeiros, attending with her 3-year-old son, told WMUR-TV. She said 10 to 30 seconds later, the pole slammed onto the bleacher where she and her son had been sitting.
Degnan said he had spoken to the operator, Sarasota, Florida-based Walker International Events. He said they were "waiting for counsel." Walker has not responded to phone and email messages from The Associated Press.
Walker's president, John Caudill Jr., has a history of violations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, primarily while operating another company, Walker Brothers Circus, Inc.
A decade ago, Caudill and his associates agreed to pay a $25,000 fine for a series of violations in 2001 while operating without an Animal Welfare Act license. The license, which allows businesses to display animals publicly, had been suspended in 1997 for other violations.
The 2001 violations, which resulted in a five-year license suspension, included failing to get adequate veterinary care for elephants with severe chemical burns and a bacterial infection, as well as elephants with overgrown food-pads and toenails. They also were cited for failing to get treatment for an elephant that was excessively thin and had protruding spine and hip bones, and failing to have a proper distance or barrier between elephants and the public during a public viewing.
Degnan also said Tuesday no request was made to state or local officials for an inspection of the tent. If they were notified, they would have done one, he said.
Degnan said he didn't know if local officials knew or should have known the show was taking place. He said the show would have required a "place of assembly permit," but to the best of his knowledge, one was not sought.
He said those questions would be part of the state's investigation, as well as the tent's setup, and a building and fire code assessment. The National Weather Service also was helping to determine what type of wind passed through the area.
The yellow-and red-striped tent was still on the ground Tuesday afternoon, away from the bleachers. Some items were strewn about, such as concession-type inflatable Sponge Bob figurines.
Leon Rideout, chairman of Lancaster's selectboard and a state representative, said the town has no ordinances dealing with licensing or permitting for these types of events. If an event organizer can get permission from the property owner, the organizer is allowed to carry out the event. Approval from town officials, including the police or fire departments, is required by local law, he said.
Rideout said the town will discuss whether changes are needed to local law.
"Obviously considering what happened, we'll have discussions about that," he said. "The question is even if we held an inspection I'm not sure we would have someone that would be qualified to tell us that the tent wasn't properly set up."
For circus-type events, state law requires any event in a tent with more than 50 people in attendance to hold a license from town or city officials, which can include the fire department or selectmen. State law also says the licensing agency "shall inspect, or cause to be inspected" each place of assembly. Any owner or operator of a circus or carnival event must present city officials with a certificate of flame proofing for any tent or canvas. The purpose of the inspection is to examine issues like aisle space, prevention of overcrowding and the maintenance of exits, among other things.
The law also requires any person who wants to conduct a "public dance, circus or carnival" to apply for police attendance at the function. The police chief then has the authority to determine whether police presence in necessary. Lancaster police officials were not immediately available for comment on whether the event operator applied for a police detail.
The names of the victims have not been released, pending notification of family. Degnan said autopsies were being conducted.
At least some of the injured sent to hospitals have been discharged. Mike Barwell, a spokesman for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, which would have accepted more seriously injured patients, said it took in two people, an adult and a 5-year-old boy. He said he had no information on the adult, but that the boy was in fair condition Tuesday.
The circus was scheduled to head to Bradford, Vermont, for shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, but canceled, state police said.
Gov. Maggie Hassan said she sends her thoughts and prayer to the family and loved ones of those lost and injured "at an event that was supposed to be fun."
Powerful thunderstorms also swept through southern New England. Several campers were hurt and one was taken to the hospital Tuesday after falling trees struck the campers or their tents at Rhode Island's Burlingame State Park. The storms also caused numerous power outages with as many as 100,000 losing electricity in Rhode Island and thousands of outages in Massachusetts.
Associated Press writers Kathy McCormack and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, Jim Cole in Lancaster, New Hampshire, and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.