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Wallenda: Cirque du Soleil acrobat's death underscores the risks performers take

TAMPA — A veteran circus acrobat fell to his death Saturday during what he told fans was a new routine, one he was performing for the first time.

"After so much work and training and staging, our straps duo act is finally in the show tonight. It’s time to go for it," Yann Arnaud, who has been with Cirque du Soleil for 15 years, wrote Saturday on Instagram.

But whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time, whether they fall from great heights or lesser ones, whether it’s concrete down below or a safety net, the risk is all the same, said one man who should know.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Cirque du Soleil performer dies after fall in Tampa

"In our family, we are taught about the tragedies," said Rick Wallenda of Sarasota, member of the famous Flying Wallendas family of high-wire artists.

Wallenda nearly died in 1987 when he fell 30 feet to a concrete floor while leapfrogging over his wife on a high wire during a Shrine Circus show in Jacksonville.

"We had been doing it for a couple of years. It was old hat," said Wallenda, 63, a circus daredevil since 1968. "But sometimes you can lose respect for the danger and get reckless up there. That is what happened to me."

He broke a right cheek, arm, hand, wrist and hip, his jaw and several ribs, and fractured his skull.

Aerialist Arnaud fell an estimated 12 feet to 15 feet to the stage Saturday, performing under the Cirque du Soleil tent at Tampa Greyhound Track.

Not even safety nets are a guarantee, Wallenda said.

One family member, he recalled, fell from the high wire and into a net while performing in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1930s but bounced onto the concrete and died.

"Nets provide a false sense of security," Wallenda said.

Arnaud’s plunge occurred during a performance of the show "Volta," which opened Feb. 14 and was scheduled to close Sunday but ended a day early because of the tragedy.

At the time of the fall, Arnaud and another performer were conducting a complex routine that involved the acrobats swinging back and forth over the stage. The men, each holding onto a gymnastic ring suspended by a rope, interlocked arms as the ring ropes wound around one another.

When the ropes unwound, the acrobats swung to opposite ends of the performance space. As gravity brought them back toward the center of the arena, Arnaud lost his grip and fell to the stage.

He later died from his injuries at Tampa General Hospital.

An autopsy was scheduled Monday by the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office, Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

"We are currently gathering more information about this tragic event," Cirque du Soleil said in a news release Monday. "We are offering our full and transparent collaboration to the authorities as they look into the circumstances of this accident."

Hegarty said he "anticipates we will conclude it was an accident but we do not take anything for granted. We will go out there and talk to a few people and look at the video."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also is investigating, he said, but could not be reached for comment Monday.

High-wire artist Wallenda, noting that he has no specific knowledge of the Cirque du Soleil tragedy or the show’s setup, said a number of possibilities might explain such a fall.

"Someone could trip over a cable on the ground attached to the straps or the cables that pull and lower the straps could have slipped off the pulley," he said. "It only takes a little jerk."

Sometimes, he said, an aerialist simply loses his or her grip.

Arnaud, 38, was from Champigny-sur-Marne, France, and lived in Miami, according to his Facebook page. He was married to Inna D Gorelova and they have two daughters, other social media posts indicate.

Daniel Lamarre, president and CEO of Canada-based Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, said in a news release, "Over the coming days and weeks, our focus will be on supporting Yann’s family and our employees, especially the Volta team, as we go through these difficult times together."

Another Cirque du Soleil performer, 31-year-old Sarah Guillot-Guyard, suffered a fatal injury during 2013 when she fell 50 feet during a show in Las Vegas.

"It’s such a tragedy," Wallenda said. "Everyone is sick over things like this when they happen."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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