LOS ANGELES – Before Roberto Valenzuela launched into his daredevil acrobatic act in the upper reaches of the Circus Vazquez big top, ringmaster Jesus Vazquez issued his standard warning to the audience: “A screw that loosens or a cord that breaks could be fatal.”
But as the popular Mexican circus performer took his act before hundreds of adults and children in South El Monte on Monday night, the warning took on tragic meaning.
Valenzuela was performing a series of maneuvers while dangling from two 26-foot-long red cloths when equipment connecting cables to the materials broke, sending the performer hurtling headfirst to the ground.
He was killed instantly in a rare circus performer death in California.
Circus Vazquez was founded in Mexico City in the late 1960s and employs about 30 animal trainers, clowns and acrobats. The company followed Hispanic population growth in the United States beginning in the mid-1990s, starting a troupe based in Brownsville, Texas, playing dates in that state and California.
Officials from Cal-OSHA and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department launched investigations into the accident. State investigators recovered bolts and other materials that apparently fell from his rigging.
Circus officials confirmed Tuesday that Valenzuela, 35, had no safety netting or harness during his performance, and it appeared that shackles connecting cables to his cloth strips failed.
County officials Tuesday offered grief counseling to the hundreds of children who witnessed Valenzuela’s death.
Witnesses said circus officials abruptly ushered patrons out of the big top after the accident, which upset many children in attendance.
Abraham Altemimi told KABC-TV that it was his 9-year-old daughter’s first visit to the circus – and perhaps her last.
“They were running from different direction … trying to get people out of the circus,” he said. “She was terrified. It was horrible. I cried after that.”
This was the first circus-related death in California in at least two decades. In 2004, a circus performer with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Minnesota fell 30 feet to her death onto a concrete floor in an accident similar to Monday’s. In that case, Dessi Espana, 32, was twirling on long chiffon scarves when witnesses said they loosened, sending her to the ground.
Don Curtis, president of the Circus Fans Association of America, said circuses’ safety measures have made injuries or deaths relatively rare.
“The circus is a place where performers live dangerously every day,” Curtis said. “That’s part of the attraction to the public.”