Video taken by audience members showed a curtain coming down, and several performers hanging around 25 feet in the air from an apparatus suspended from above. Seconds later, as they began to perform, the women fell and the metal apparatus landed on them.
"It just went crashing down," said audience member Sydney Bragg, 14, of North Kingstown. "Everyone was freaking out. We heard this huge clatter and then we just heard the girls scream."
She said spotlights were on the performers at the time, but all the lights went out after the fall.
Rosa Viveiros of Seekonk, Massachusetts, said she saw that the acrobats had fallen on top of at least one other performer on the ground, a man who stood up with his face bloodied. The acrobats remained still and did not get up, she said.
"We thought it was part of the circus," said her husband, Joe.
The couple attended the circus with their 6-year-old grandson and 9-year-old niece.
"Everyone was in shock," Rosa Viveiros said. "It was pretty overwhelming to see that."
The circus began performances in Providence on Friday. The Dunkin' Donuts Center canceled two shows scheduled for later Sunday.
A Ringling Bros. aerial performer was killed in 2004 in St. Paul, Minnesota, when she was twirling 30 feet in the air on long chiffon scarves and the material gave way.