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Wallenda: Performer may have fainted before high-wire fall (w/ video)

Five people were injured Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in Sarasota while rehearsing the final act, an eight person pyramid on a high wire, for the upcoming Circus Sarasota show Synergy. [Rachel S. O'Hara | Sarasota Herald-Tribune via AP]
Published Feb. 9, 2017

Nik Wallenda says it was a "miracle" that his co-performers — including members of his "Flying Wallendas" family — are expected to completely recover after falling more than 30 feet during a high-wire stunt in Sarasota.

"If you don't believe in God, you better start now," the tightrope daredevil said Thursday, a day after five people dropped to the floor and were seriously injured inside a Big Top tent erected for Circus Sarasota, which is slated to open Friday.

The incident is under investigation, but Wallenda and circus officials said one of the performers may have lost his or her balance while practicing an eight-person pyramid. Wallenda it was very warm as they were practicing.

"We were halfway out on the wire and a couple of people on the front got kicked around and started to lose their balance. I thought someone may have fainted. We just don't know," he said.

Three were brought to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the others to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and Blake Medical Center.

The names of the injured have not been released by officials. However, Nik's uncle Rick Wallenda said the most seriously hurt were his sister, Rietta Wallenda, and cousin Lijana Wallenda. Rietta sustained a broken hip and Lijana, who is also Nik's sister, has a broken jaw, a lacerated liver and other broken bones, Rick Wallenda said.

Nik Wallenda said doctors told him all five would recover, but that typically "people don't live from accidents like this." Wallenda credits the performers' athleticism, saying each is "limber, agile."

The group had been practicing the stunt 16 times a day, 12 feet off the ground for two months. Wallenda said they don't use a net when training, because it "provides a false sense of security." The goal was to break a Guinness World Record, he said.

But, "accidents happen," he said, and it's something the group prepares for.

One person fell 40 feet had only three broken toes, he said. Another fell about 30 feet and "walked out of the ring immediately."

Wallenda did not fall and was not injured.

"I grabbed the wire and climbed hand over hand onto the platform," Wallenda said.

Wallenda said he rode with Lijana in the ambulance to the hospital, and she talked the entire way.

"It's been a rough couple of days," he said. "Yesterday was the roughest day in my life and I've had some rough days."

Pedro Reis, founder and CEO of the Sarasota Circus Arts Conservatory which puts on the show, said the circus will open as planned Friday in a Big Top tent at Nathan Benderson Park behind University Town Center mall.

Wallenda has promised the group's show will go on in honor of the injured.

"Three words I live by: Never give up," he said.

Wallenda, who is billed as the headliner, said he did not believe the incident would negatively affect the show.

"My opinion is it will sell out quick so buy your tickets now," he said.

Rick Wallenda is still scheduled to perform his death defying craft at St. Petersburg's Sundial this Saturday at 5 p.m. despite Wednesday's fall being a reminder of the dangers of what he does.

He will cross the courtyard by walking a cable no bigger than an index finger, without the use of a harness of safety net.

Prior to the skywalk, there will be other circus-themed performers beginning at 4 p.m.

Participating Sundial retailers will donate proceeds back to Habitat for Humanity.

Nik Wallenda, 38, a seventh-generation performer, has found fame performing daredevil high-wire walks over Niagara Falls, a gorge near the Grand Canyon, between Chicago skyscrapers and across the rim of the Orlando Eye observation wheel.

While performing around the world, Wallenda and his family have lived in Sarasota, a mecca for circus performers since the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus began making its winter home there 90 years ago.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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