Among all the joys a circus can deliver, the ultimate thrill of watching acrobats bewilders the audience with difficult stunts. It is as if the acrobats have learned to erase their sense of self-preservation for the sake of the business.

As such, accidents are not uncommon, and they have been inevitable parts of this entertainment industry probably since the beginning of it all.

The safety of most acrobatic acts relies on two things: first, the performers’ athletic abilities, and second, how well the apparatuses are put together.

But even if all preparations have been done and precautions are taken, the possibility of an accident remains lurking somewhere in the corner.

There have been plenty of unfortunate circumstances where even the most skilled acrobats couldn’t tackle the challenges of the stunts, leading to fatal accidents and deaths.

Among the easily memorable ones was the end of Karl Wallenda, who in 1978 fell from a 120-foot high-wire act on a televised promotional event in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Almost the entire show sequence and the eventual fall weres filmed by a local station.

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10 /10 Founder Of The Great Wallendas

Karl Wallenda was the leader and founder of the Flying Wallendas (formerly the Great Wallendas), one of the most famous high-wire walkers in circus history.

On March 22, 1978, he performed his usual high-wire act in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as part of a promotional event for the Pan American Circus.

He was 73-years-old. The stunt turned out to be the last one Karl ever did. Several hundred people witnessed Karl fall upon a vehicle and then bounce to the ground from what must have been at least 120-foot high-wire.

9 /10 Beachfront Hotels

The promotional act required Karl to walk across a tightly strung 750-foot cable between two beachfront hotels, the Flamboyan Hotel and the Condado Holiday Inn.

The line stretched right across the street below. About halfway to the other end, a strong ocean wind suddenly picked up at a speed of around 30 knots.

The cable seemed to be dancing around beneath Karl’s feet, forcing him to struggle to maintain balance.

In the end, the wind proved to be too strong for him to cope with. Immediately after the fall, Karl was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead upon arrival.


8 /10 Hold Tight!

According to Jane Baird, a reporter for San Juan Star who was covering the stunt, Karl told his crew to hold tight as the strong wind made the cable wobble back and forth.

Crew members yelled back, asking their leader to assume a sitting position so that he might be able to regain balance. Karl slowly attempted to bend his knees further to squat before suddenly the wind seemed to blow him off the cable.

Multiple fractures and trauma were ruled as the cause of the death at the Presbyterian Hospital located nearby the site of the incident.

7 /10 Multiple Checks

According to the Pan American Circus promotion manager, Bill Carpenter, the cable and wind speed had been checked multiple times by Karl himself.

During a morning check before the stunt, the wind blew from the east at 12mph or around 10 knots.

When asked if he wanted to continue considering the wind speed, Karl maintained that the wind on the ground was more substantial than up there at a 10-story high where he was about to walk.

One crew member said that Karl had performed under worse conditions too, and Karl and that particular crew member were mistaken.

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6 /10 Ballet Slippers And Steel Pole

The son of a catcher in a flying act, Karl Wallenda grew up in a family of performers. He began performing at age six. For 50 years before his fall, he dazzled spectators all across the country with his spectacular daredevil performances.

The most complex equipment was the cable, as it had to be stretched and anchored in the safest way possible to support the performer’s weight.

Karl utilized only simple equipment for every stunt, such as a pair of ballet slippers with the welt of the sole sewn inside and a flexible steel pole.

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5 /10 Wandering Band Of Performers

Karl Wallenda was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1905. By the start of World War I, he and his brother, Herman, were doing acrobatic stunts sponsored by patrons of local restaurants in the country.

There wasn’t any straightforward business plan; the roving band of performers only wanted to earn enough for supper. When the war ended, Karl found himself working in a coal mine.

During his time as a miner, he came across an advertisement in the paper for a man who could do handstands in Breslau. It was the start of Karl’s long career.

4 /10 Handstands On A High Wire

The person looking for the handstand performer turned out to be Louis Weitzman, a wire walker. In his ads, Mr. Weitzman didn’t mention that the handstand should be performed on his shoulders while walking on a high wire.

At that time, Karl had never walked on the wire before, let alone performed a handstand on someone’s shoulders.

Despite having no prior experience with such an act, Karl pulled it off on the first attempt. Karl spent a good few years with Mr. Weitzman before organizing his high wire performance.

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3 /10 Sensational First Professional Performance

Karl brought his brother, Herman, and two other performers for Milan’s high-wire pyramid acrobatic show. It was the first-ever high-wire pyramid stunt in front of thrilled spectators.

When the group performed in Havana in 1927, John Ringling saw the potential and brought them to the United States. He hired the group to be part of his Greatest Show on Earth.

Over the next 20 years, the Great Wallendas expanded in size. A confusing array of wives, children, nephews, and in-laws joined the group toured the world. In the late 1940s, their main activity was the seven-person pyramid.

2 /10 Fatal Accidents

The pyramid was a regular act from 1947 to 1961. In January 1962, during a performance in Detroit, a fatal incident killed two of the troupe members, Dieter Schepp and Richard Faughan, Karl’s nephew and son-in-law, respectively.

His adopted son, Mario, became paralyzed from the waist down. The tour continued over the next decade, but the high-wire pyramid was no more.

Karl’s second-wife, Helen, had unsuccessfully tried to persuade her husband to retire for the last few years before the 1978 accident. She did not see the fall, but she was in San Juan when the incident happened.

1 /10 Immortalized Event

Karl’s fall and death were memorable because a TV camera captured the moments before, during, and after the incident. CBS News and ABC News ran the film on their evening programs that day.

Now the footage is also easily accessible on YouTube. The video vividly shows the terrifying seconds as Karl struggled to maintain a steady footing because the cable wouldn’t stay still.

He fought to balance using a flexible pole but finally could not withstand the ocean wind. Karl Wallenda fell to his death.

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