By Katie Mettler
Five members of the famed Wallenda acrobat troupe plummeted 25 feet Wednesday while practicing their signature pyramid stunt - a precise and dangerous feat that involves balancing eight people atop a thin high-wire without a safety net.
Two people were hospitalized in the intensive care unit at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and a third required surgery and was in critical condition, the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported. Trauma surgeon Alan Brockhurst told the Tribune all were expected to survive. The two other injured performers were taken to separate facilities; one was treated for minor injuries, reported the Tribune, and the other was taken to Blake Medical Center’s trauma center.
Nik Wallenda, the group’s star and a renowned daredevil, was involved in the stunt but was not injured, authorities told the Associated Press.
“He caught himself,” county spokeswoman Ashley Lusby told the AP.
The performers were practicing for the Friday opening of Circus Sarasota, which “presents professional performances that are acclaimed around the globe for world-class artistry and entertainment,” according to the Sarasota Circus Arts Conservatory website.
Nik Wallenda was one of the final pieces of the pyramid puzzle, reported the Sarasota Herald Tribune. A performer in front of him lost balance, causing the entire troupe to topple, the newspaper reported.
Pedro Reis, founder and chief executive of the Circus Arts Conservatory, told reporters during a news conference Wednesday that the rigging was not to blame and that the circus will still open Friday.
“The show must go on,” Reis said.
The Wallendas are circus royalty, their family roots tracing back to the Austro-Hungarian empire of the 1700s. Nik Wallenda’s ancestors traveled as a collective of circus performers and were brought to America by his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, to perform for the Greatest Show on Earth, according to his personal website.
The family performed successfully until 1962, when a Detroit show turned tragic and three acrobats fell to the ground. Two were killed, and Karl Wallenda’s son was paralyzed.
Karl Wallenda continued performing his “sky walks” between buildings and across stadiums until age 73. That year, 1978, he fell to his death during a high-wire walk in Puerto Rico.
More than 30 years later, in 2011, Nik Wallenda successfully completed the same Puerto Rico walk that killed his grandfather. As he approached the end of the line, he knelt down and blew a kiss for the family patriarch.
Throughout his career, Nik Wallenda has walked on wires across the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls and set numerous world records.
The act the Wallenda troupe was rehearsing Wednesday was supposed to break a world record for height, reported the Tribune. The eight-person pyramid had been performed before, but never on a rope higher than 25 feet.
“The idea is it’s something all new they haven’t seen in Sarasota, either ever, or in generations,” Nik Wallenda told the Tribune last week. “I’m trying to bring back things my great-grandfather used to do, those sorts of tricks. Some of them that he did have still not been duplicated.”
The show will be altered because of the incident, officials said, but the high-wire acts will continue without nets.
“It’s a Wallenda tradition,” Conservatory managing director Jennifer Mitchell said at a news conference. “The Wallendas have never used a net.”
The Tribune was unable to reach Wallenda for comment Wednesday, but Reis spoke on his behalf.
“We are resilient, the circus people are resilient,” Reis told the Tribune. “Nik is feeling a lot of pain right now. Our prayers go out to Nik and his family, and the others.”