Circus Tightrope Walker Survives Fall

A high-wire circus daredevil miraculously cheated death yesterday after plummeting 30 feet to the ground before a crowd of thousands of screaming kids and parents at Madison Square Garden.

Ringling Bros. (search) tightrope walker Hernando Rangel, 34, was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital (search) still wearing his sequined leotard after the horrifying fall, the equivalent of three stories, police and circus officials said.

He was in stable condition with injuries to his lower back, chest and right elbow — but no broken bones, said Dr. Daniel Rosa.

If the aerialist had fallen differently, his "head injuries could have been a lot more massive," Rosa said.

Rangel's pregnant wife and several circus pals — all of whom witnessed his fall — held vigil at his hospital bedside as he continued to undergo tests.

The friends said he was in good spirits, telling them, "I'm very lucky."

Rangel, a Venezuelan native who joined the circus in December, was working without a net as part of his act featuring high-wire honcho "Crazy" Wilson Dominguez and another man. He was spinning around on the quarter-inch-wide silver wire when he fell.

"I don't know if his foot caught or what, but he started to lose his balance," said Ken Huskey, a circus drummer who was playing background music when the accident occurred at around 1:45 p.m.

"He let go of [his balancing] pole ... and started to go for the wire."

When he missed it, Rangel made a desperate grab for another, smaller, wire holding up a nearby platform, but never got it.

He fell across the gap between a pair of 2-foot-high foam mats placed below the men to break any possible fall. The gap was there to accommodate the "leg" of a trampoline also used in the act, Huskey said.

"His head and neck hit the concrete — it was like a crash-test dummy," said Deborah Alter, who looked on with her husband and three kids.

"At first, it seemed like it was part of a routine, like when they pretend they're going to fall. Then, bam! He really fell.

"It was horrifying," Alter said. "There were thousands of kids in there. People were screaming."

Toja Burton, who watched along with her 5- and 8-year-old sons, said the ringmaster and EMS workers who were already stationed at the scene in case of an accident rushed to help Rangel.

The show went on, as a circus official announced Rangel would be fine.

"They kept the music going and brought out the clowns," Burton said.

At last night's performance, Rangel's two comrades went on without him, jumping rope and standing on each other's shoulders on the high wire.