Father, girl, 2, burned in stunt

Arundel officials probe accident

October 21, 2005|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

David Duvall volunteered from the audience for what he thought would be a harmless stunt at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. He let a member of a flame-throwing act put protective gel on his shaved head and light it on fire. Just an act.

But the flames singed him and somehow jumped to the face of his 2-year-old daughter, Autumn, who was standing beside him. The two were rushed to a nearby hospital, where they were treated; Autumn suffered second-degree burns.

Yesterday, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department opened an investigation into the incident and ordered the festival to stop using any fire in performances at the Crownsville grounds, said Lt. Frank Fennell, a spokesman for the county fire marshal.

"What they did was illegal," Fennell said.

The performance group, Aerial Angels, had not requested required permits from the state and county fire marshal's offices to perform with fire, officials said. And if they had applied, Fennell said, they would have been turned down.

"This is what the codes are designed to protect people from," Fennell said.

Someone who answered a phone number for the group hung up when contacted by a reporter yesterday. Phone messages were not returned.

Jules Smith, general manager of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, said the group was new this year. "It's not something I want to discuss publicly," he said. "It [the accident] is very unusual, and from what I understand, it wasn't that big of an accident."

The family disagrees.

"I think we're all, you know, a little crazy right now," said Christina Duvall, 34, Autumn's mother, from their home in Bridgeville, Del.

More than 200,000 people a year visit the festival, which dates to 1977 and features entertainers in period dress and more than 100 vendors at a mock Renaissance village. The event runs weekends from late August to late October and ends Sunday.

The Aerial Angels appear around the country at Renaissance and medieval fairs, and perform acrobatics in addition to fire shows, according to the group's Web site.

The troupe says on its Web site that it comes up with new tricks by asking, "Hey, do you think this will work?"

"Only one way to find out!"

The stunt that went wrong Sunday is known in the world of fire performers as a "partial body burn." Experienced performers say it is for experts only and should never be attempted on an audience volunteer.

"That just blows me away," said Norma Baum with Cirque de Flambe, a troupe of fire performers based in Seattle, when told about last weekend's incident. "That is unbelievable. These are the type of people who give us a bad name."

Tom Comet, the owner of Circus Orange, a stunt circus based in Canada, said: "There are whole books published of what you need to know before you light yourself on fire, much less anybody else.

"It is still not something that I would consider doing on anybody who isn't trained in the art of working with fire," Comet added.

Christina Duvall said she and her husband thought Sunday was a perfect day to bring their children, Brent, age 12, and Autumn, to the festival.

The family was at the Market Stage when, Duvall said, a female performer from the group picked out her husband, David, 32.

"She said, `OK we're going to light your head on fire,'" Christina Duvall said.

The idea in such stunts, experts say, is to spread a protective gel on the subject to protect the skin before adding a small quantity of fuel and lighting a flame. The performer used a lit wand to light the fire.

"I thought `what is going to happen?'" Christina Duvall said. "`This [performer] is experienced. Everything will be fine.' Well, it wasn't fine."

The woman put a wand in the bucket and the "drippings came off of the wand onto my daughter," Christina Duvall said. Then, she added, "fire fell" on Autumn's head.

Duvall acted quickly. She rushed toward her daughter and patted the fire out with her bare hands.

"All I know is my blood was pumping so hard and the adrenaline just kicked in," Christina Duvall said. "All I could see was her, I didn't care about anything around me except that kid."

Autumn was taken to a first-aid stand and then by ambulance to Anne Arundel Medical Center, where she was treated. Her father was also admitted. They were released later that day.

"It all happened so damn fast," Christina Duvall said.

David Duvall is doing OK, his wife said. He has blisters on the top of his head that are healing.

Christina Duvall said the entire left side of her daughter's face is covered in blisters, but doctors do not believe there will be any permanent scarring. Her brown hair became engulfed in flames. Now the hair on her left side is gone.

"Her poor little eye - [the flame] burned her eyelashes off, it burned off her eyebrows, it burned her ear and that cute little face," said Christina Duvall as she choked back tears. "This beautiful kid, she's so sweet."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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