LANCASTER, N.H. (AP) — It’s unclear why after a widespread warning of impending severe weather a circus put on its planned show in a tent that ended up collapsing in a storm, killing a spectator and his 8-year-old daughter, the state fire marshal said Tuesday.
More than 30 other people were taken to hospitals after the collapse Monday night at the Lancaster Fairgrounds, 90 miles north of Concord.
Fire Marshal Bill Degnan said it’s the responsibility of the circus operator to monitor the weather. The show began seven minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe-thunderstorm warning. The storm blew through about 15 minutes after that, with about 100 people inside the tent.
Spectator Heidi Medeiros, who attended the circus with her 3-year-old son, told WMUR-TV that the metal poles holding up the tent flew out of the ground and slammed onto the bleacher where they had been sitting.
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Degnan said the storm cut a track of a half-mile to a mile that included downed trees while it approached the tent.
The victims of the collapse were identified as 41-year-old Robert Young and his daughter Annabelle, of Concord, Vermont. An autopsy showed they died of blunt-force trauma, Degnan said.
The yellow-and red-striped tent was still on the ground Tuesday afternoon, away from the bleachers. Items including concession-type inflatable SpongeBob figurines were strewn about.
Degnan said the operator, Sarasota, Florida-based Walker International Events, has been cooperating in the investigation into what happened. Walker didn’t return repeated phone calls and emails from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Walker’s president, John Caudill Jr., has a history of violations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, primarily while operating another company, Walker Brothers Circus Inc.
A decade ago, Caudill and his associates agreed to pay a $25,000 fine for a series of violations in 2001 while operating without an Animal Welfare Act license. The license, which allows businesses to display animals publicly, had been suspended in 1997 for other violations.
The 2001 violations, which resulted in a five-year license suspension, included failing to get adequate veterinary care for elephants with severe chemical burns and a bacterial infection and elephants with overgrown footpads and toenails. They also were cited for failing to get treatment for an elephant that was excessively thin and failing to have a proper distance or barrier between elephants and the public during a viewing.
Caudill also was cited in 1997 for not providing adequate veterinary care, failing to maintain complete records on animals and not providing structurally sound enclosures in good repair. His license was suspended for 30 days. When Caudill didn’t pay a $5,000 fine, the USDA sued him for an additional $2,700 in fines and penalties.
Degnan said no request was made to state or local officials to inspect the tent. Degnan said he didn’t know if local officials knew or should have known the show was taking place. He said the show would have required a place of assembly permit but one was not sought.
Those questions are part of the state’s investigation, as well as the tent’s setup and a building and fire code assessment, Degnan said.
Leon Rideout, chairman of Lancaster’s selectboard and a state representative, said the town has no ordinance dealing with licensing or permitting of circuses, but state law requires approval from town officials, including the police or fire departments. Rideout said the town will discuss whether changes are needed to local law.
“The question is, even if we held an inspection, I’m not sure we would have someone that would be qualified to tell us that the tent wasn’t properly set up,” he said.
For circus-type events, state law requires any event in a tent with more than 50 people in attendance to hold a license from town or city officials. State law also says the licensing agency “shall inspect, or cause to be inspected” each place of assembly to examine aisle space, prevention of overcrowding and the maintenance of exits, among other things.
The law also requires any public dance, circus or carnival to apply for police attendance. Lancaster police officials weren’t immediately available to say if the event operator applied for a police detail.
At least some of the injured have been released from hospitals. Mike Barwell, a spokesman for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, said a 5-year-old boy was in fair condition there.
The circus canceled shows in Bradford, Vermont, on Tuesday and Wednesday, state police said.
Powerful thunderstorms also swept through southern New England. In Rhode Island, falling trees at Burlingame State Park struck campers or their tents, leaving at least nine people with minor injuries. The storms also caused numerous power outages, with as many as 100,000 losing electricity in Rhode Island and thousands of outages in Massachusetts.
Associated Press writers Kathy McCormack and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire; Jim Cole in Lancaster, New Hampshire; and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.