Nik Wallenda recalls grabbing the high wire and holding on for dear life, but doesn’t remember how he got to the ground — he went into rescue mode after five people fell while practicing an eight-person high-wire pyramid stunt Wednesday, Wallenda said Thursday.
“Everyone who is alive is a miracle,” Wallenda said, with Circus Arts Conservatory founder and CEO Pedro Reis at his side. “God was with us.”
His aunt and sister were two of the five who fell.
Wallenda said he struggled with the decision whether to perform again so soon. But following the age-old mantra “the show must go on,” coupled with his personal motto “never give up,” that’s just what he’ll do.
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He first credited Jesus Christ in making sure the circus performers made it out alive Then, he credited the performers’ muscles, as doctors had told Wallenda they would have had more serious injuries without them.
The accident occurred under the Circus Sarasota Big Top as eight performers practiced their high-wire pyramid stunt just two days before the Circus Sarasota Synergy show was scheduled to open. Four people held the bottom while two were on the next layer, then one carried the final person on their shoulders. Wallenda, famed circus performer and nine-time Guinness World Record holder, was the anchor at the bottom of the pyramid.
Everyone who is alive is a miracle.
Rietta, his aunt, was sitting at the very top of the pyramid on the shoulders of a man who also fell, according to his cousin Rick Wallenda. She’ll have ankle and shoulder surgery Friday, followed eventually by hip surgery.
Nik Wallenda’s sister, Lijana, was one of the people on the second layer and had the worst injuries.
Wallenda was able to grab onto the wire with his cousin Blake and another performer. Two of the other performers have “bumps and scrapes and bruises.” The last, who fell 40 feet from the top, only has three broken toes, Wallenda said.
Wallenda told the media he doesn’t know exactly what happened, saying that someone could have blacked out. But Rick Wallenda contends there’s more specifics.
“(Rietta) was at the very top and she saw what was going on right below her, and the person right below her was out of control with her balancing pole,” Rick Wallenda said.
That person was Lijana, Rick Wallenda said.
“(Lijana)’s still in an induced coma and there’s fear of brain swelling,” Rick Wallenda said. “She has extensive facial damage.”
Rick maintained that it wasn’t a matter of fainting and that there needed to be more practice.
“There were some mistakes made leading up to it,” he said.
Rick Wallenda recalled words that his grandfather Karl Wallenda once told him.
“‘Put your feet on the wire right, hold tight to that pole and never lose your cool, you will never fail’,” Rick recited, adding, “Somebody broke those rules.”
But Nik Wallenda reassured everyone on Thursday, saying there were no brain injuries, that everyone was coherent when they were transported to the hospital and whatever internal bleeding there was had stopped. Doctors were confident that everyone will have a full recovery.
One of the three people taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital was discharged Thursday afternoon. As of 10 a.m., the most recent update on the other two, the others remained in the trauma intensive care unit, according to hospital spokeswoman Kim Savage. One remains in critical condition with life-threatening conditions. Another is in guarded condition.
Within three hours of arrived at Sarasota Memorial Wednesday, Dr. Alan Brockhurst, medical director of the trauma center, said the performers had suffered mostly orthopedic injuries, but that one performer also had a traumatic brain injury.
One performer was taken to Blake Media Center in Bradenton as a trauma alert on Wednesday. A fifth patient was taken to to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center. Blake Medical Center would not comment on Thursday.
In Thursday’s press conference, Wallenda reviewed what had happened in what he repeatedly called a miracle of survival.
“We were halfway out on the wire, and we don’t know yet what happened,” Wallenda said. “Somebody might have fainted...
“We take life for granted,” he said, the emotion welling in his voice. “We are so blessed... some of the best doctors in the country have flown in to take care of our family.”
The accident is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to spokesman Michael D'Aquino. No details regarding the investigation were released.
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the accident Wednesday, but officials said Thursday they were not investigating it.
There was no net, which is how they always rehearse, Wallenda confirmed Thursday. A net can be a false sense of security — his uncle bounced out of a net and died, he noted.
Circus Arts Conservatory officials repeated that this wasn’t a wire or rigging failure, like the one that claimed the life of Wallenda’s great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, after he fell during a high-wire walk across between two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico in 1978. More than 30 years later, Nik Wallenda completed the same walk with his mother, Delilah.
Other Wallenda performances have been fatal in the past. In 1962, during a seven-person high-wire pyramid stunt at the Shine Circus at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum, front anchor Dieter Schepp made a bad move, plunging Schepp, 23, and Karl Wallenda’s son-in-law Richard Faughnan, 29, to their deaths. Karl Wallenda’s adopted son Mario, 22, was paralyzed from the fall.
The next year, Karl Wallenda’s sister-in-law Rietta fell 45 feet to her death while performing in Omaha. In 1972 in West Virginia, his 29-year-old son-in-law Richard Guzman died after walking on the high-wire when he touched a live wire with a balancing pole, fell backward onto two electrical wires and plummeted 50 feet.
Circus Arts founder and CEO Pedro Reis has told reporters that he could not go into details of the trick, but the fall was caused by balance issues. Since this was the final act of the show, Wallenda said Thursday that the eight-person pyramid would not happen. Instead, a smaller act will replace the stunt, which will include himself, his wife Erendira, and a few of the performers involved in Wednesday’s incident.
The Circus Sarasota Synergy show opens at 7 p.m. on Friday and runs through March 5. On Saturday, Rick Wallenda will be traversing two towers by high-wire at the downtown St. Petersburg Sundial at 5 p.m.
This story will be updated.