Human cannonball killed in Kent after safety net 'fails to engage'

A man performing as a human cannonball at a stunt show in Kent has died after a safety net failed to engage.

The man, who was not formally identified but was said by police to be in his twenties, was taking part in Scott May's Daredevil Stunt Show yesterday afternoon at the Kent County Showground in Detling. He was taken to Maidstone Hospital by air ambulance but was later declared dead.

The stunt involved the performer clambering up a ladder and sliding into a giant barrel mounted on the back of a 7.5-ton truck. On being fired into the air the performer then usually turns while in flight and lands on a safety net held in position by poles which are designed to crash to the ground shortly afterwards.

The show, which claims on its website to be Europe's largest independent touring stunt show, has been on the road for 20 years and previously claimed a flawless safety record. Its summer programme began last month but last night the website announced: "Due to unforeseen circumstances the shows are cancelled until further notice."

As well as the human cannonball spectacle, the show also features pyrotechnics, several monster trucks and airborne jumps on motorcycles, quad bikes and buggies.

It was established in 1991 by Scott May, a former schoolboy motocross champion who was inspired to set up the show by the antics of Evel Knievel and Eddie Kidd.

Human cannonballs have been wowing fairground crowds since 1877, when the stunt was performed at Westminster Aquarium in London by a 14-year-old girl with the stage name of Zazel. She later joined the celebrated Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In reality, they do not use gunpowder or explosives. Zazel's original feat was achieved using a high-tension spring, while these days performers are expelled from the barrel using compressed air. They slip into an inner cylinder inside the barrel which at the desired moment suddenly slides upwards at high speed, stopping at the mouth of the barrel and relying on sheer momentum to carry the person out and into the air. The illusion of an explosion is created externally using smoke machines and firecrackers.

Being launched out of a giant metal cylinder sound dangerous even without the use of any gunpowder, but as in the tragic case yesterday it is the landing that has long proved to be the riskiest part of the operation, and down the years more than 30 deaths have resulted from people overshooting the net.

The famed Zacchini brothers, who began performing in 1922, were the victims of another kind of accident when they collided in mid-air after being launched from opposite ends of a circus ring, causing one of them to break his back.

The record distance travelled by a human cannonball was set in Milan last month by David Smith Jr, who bettered the previous best of 56 metres achieved in 1998 by his father, David Smith Sr, by two metres. The elder of the two daredevils has been launched over many things in his career, including the border between the USA and Mexico.

In 1974, a human cannonball attempted to clear the river Avon in Bristol, but two launches in the space of four days both resulted in 21-year-old Mary Connors falling short and landing in the water. She was fortunate not to suffer any serious injuries, having previously said that she had merely had a few swimming lessons rather than taking out life insurance.

In 1987, another human cannonball with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Elvin Bale, was paralysed from the waist down.

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