Witness: Circus bleacher collapsed like a 'fallen souffle'by Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio,
Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The city of St. Paul has temporarily closed the circus academy where about a dozen spectators were injured when a set of bleachers collapsed last night.
The accident happened at the end of the final performance of the summer show at Circus Juventas.
Scores of circus performers were taking their bows for their final show of the season at Circus Juventas, when Jennifer Blecha felt something go wrong.
"I felt this momentary shift under my feet and I thought, is this thing going to fall?," said Blecha. "And then it fell. And it just went straight down, like a fallen souffle."
Blecha, of St. Paul, was one of nearly 1,000 people who had watched the sold-out show from folding chairs placed on risers on either side of the performance. Some may have been more than eight feet above the floor when the risers collapsed.
Circus officials say about 420 people -- nearly half the audience -- were on the risers that fell. Seven were taken by ambulance to local hospitals, and five others reported being injured and may have sought medical attention on their own.
Witnesses and officials say injuries ranged from minor bumps to what may have been broken ankles and wrists among the people who fell to the floor.
Dan Butler founded Circus Juventas and is the executive director of the circus school. He says this was the most serious incident in the school's history.
"We've been extremely fortunate and haven't had any incidents of any kind, really. A bruised arm, a broken wrist, a broken elbow in the last 15 years," said Butler. "Safety is the most absolute important thing here at Circus Juventas, not only for our kids and our young people, but certainly our spectators."
The school is housed in a tent-like structure with a concrete floor in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. Although it sits on city land, the school building and the equipment inside are owned by the school.
Butler says the risers are assembled twice a year for each of the major shows his students put on. The seating is removed after the show closes.
City officials said they inspected the risers three years ago, but the seating systems may have been substantially modified since then.
But Butler says the audience itself may have played a role in the collapse. School and city officials both said audience members had risen from their chairs to give the performers a standing ovation.
Music from the show was still playing, and witnesses said members of the audience may have been stomping their feet or swaying on the riser before it fell. Butler says the movement may have been part of the problem.
"We think this was kind of an anomaly, just from everybody kind of clapping and moving up and down together," said Butler. "But I don't know. We don't know."
City inspectors closed the building as part of their investigation of the collapse.
Minnesota has some of the most stringent regulations in the country for event seating. The state passed the nation's first bleacher safety act in 1999, after a 6-year-old boy died from a fall from the seats in a Hutchinson hockey arena.
Those regulations require heightened inspections, but are meant to address guardrails, gaps in the seating area and proper maintenance, rather than load-bearing capacity.
Classes are due to resume at Circus Juventas on Sept. 14.
- All Things Considered, 08/17/2009, 5:24 p.m.
Tim Nelson is a general assignment reporter for MPR News.