Every year, millions of Americans ride amusement park rides, jump in bouncy houses, zoom down water slides and strap into roller coasters with the assumption that the rides are safe.
But across the country and in Ohio, oversight of traveling carnivals, amusement parks and inflatable attractions is handled by a patchwork of state and local authorities and industry insiders.
Ride inspections are in the spotlight again after Ohio Gov. John Kasich ordered all rides at the Ohio State Fair re-inspected last month after Tyler Jarrell, an 18-year-old Marine recruit, was killed and seven others were injured while riding the Fire Ball on opening day of the fair. The ride broke apart, flinging riders through the air and throwing debris on bystanders.
Excessive corrosion caused a metal arm to break on the ride, the Netherlands-based ride manufacturer KMG said in a statement on Sunday.
“It was determined that excessive corrosion on the interior of the gondola support beam dangerously reduced the beam’s wall thickness over the years,” according to the statement. “This finally led to a catastrophic failure of the ride during operation.”
State records show the Fire Ball was inspected that morning. Jarrell’s family has hired a law firm.
No National Standards
“I can tell you this: it’s a mess,” said Ken Martin, a national expert on ride safety inspections and owner of KRM Consulting. There are no national standards on how inspections should be conducted, no mechanism for sharing safety information and no uniform standards for inspector training, he said.
Twenty-two fatalities have been linked to amusement rides since 2010 and last year nearly 31,000 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with rides and attractions, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which investigates accidents involving portable rides. Rides at amusement parks such as Kings Island and Cedar Point are exempt from federal safety oversight and are instead inspected by state and local authorities.
8 inspectors, 3,800 rides
In Ohio, the state Department of Agriculture’s eight inspectors are responsible for inspecting and licensing nearly 3,800 rides, 689 games, 32 go-kart tracks, 22 water parks, 348 portable ride companies and 286 permanent facilities. State regulations call for annual licensing and inspections of equipment before the public starts riding and investigation of accidents.
Still, tragedies occur.
— In May 2011, Dr. Amgad Abdou fell and hit his head while on an inflatable obstacle course in Avon, near Cleveland. The accident left him a quadriplegic. His family sued the state but later dismissed the case.
— In June 2010, Douglas Johnson of Pennsylvania was attending a Cleveland Indians game when an inflatable slide set up for a kids fun day event fell on top of him. He died days later.
— In August 2003, Greyson Yoe, 8, was electrocuted at a scooter ride set up at the Lake County fair. He died weeks later. State inspectors Theordore Brubaker and Kalin Turner were each found guilty of dereliction of duty and sentenced to 15 days in jail and two years of community control. Brubaker and Turner both remain at the state Department of Agriculture — Brubaker as an inspector.
Martin says Ohio has room for improvement in its inspection program.
“You’re talking to somebody who has read these sworn statements in these cases and they (state inspectors) say they did a lot of things but I still got dead bodies and a paralyzed man to show that they didn’t,” Martin said.
Martin added that “near misses” — incidents that don’t result in serious injury — should be tracked because those often indicate underlying problems.
In June 2009, Tyler Maloney, an 11-year-old Middletown boy, escaped serious injury when a wind gust blew an inflatable slide about 70 yards. “I just hung on. I could have died, I’ll tell you that,” the boy told the Journal-News the next day.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture says in its annual reports that the state is known for having one of the best inspection programs in the country.
Michael Vartorella, chief inspector of amusement ride safety, said at a press conference following the Ohio State Fair incident: “We take this job very serious and when we have a tragedy like this, it hits us really hard. My children, my grandchildren ride this equipment. So, my guys do not rush through this stuff. We look at it, we take care of it and we pretend it’s our own.”
Over the past decade, the department’s number of inspectors has fluctuated between seven and nine. But the number of rides licensed has climbed 35 percent to 3,765 in 2015, up from 2,780 in 2006. Likewise, the number of portable ride companies licensed has climbed 13 percent and the number of permanent facilities has more than doubled over the past decade, state records show.
State spending on the Amusement Ride Safety program grew 13 percent to $1.25 million in 2017, up from $1.1 million in 2006.
“Ohio has had an excellent, outstanding inspection program,” said Bob Johnson of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, a trade group for carnivals.
Amusements of America has run midway for 25 years
Amusements of America has been the midway operator at the Ohio State Fair for 25 consecutive years. Unlike other states, Ohio does not bid out its annual contract for operating rides, games and concessions at the state fair.
Instead, it “gauges interest” among vendors every four years, said Alicia Shoults, an Ohio State Fair spokeswoman. On the last go around, no other carnival expressed interest, she said. Because it’s a revenue-generating contract, it does not have to be bid out or go through the Ohio Controlling Board for approval.
Johnson said most states bid out the contract but it’s not unusual for carnival operators to return to a fair year after year for decades. “The perception is that we’re fly-by-night operators. But these are well established family operators with established routes,” he said, adding: “A large carnival like Amusements of America have a lot of equipment so their route is well defined and well established.”
The unbid contract between the Ohio Expositions Commission and Amusements of America, first signed in 2014, calls for the state to receive between 40 and 43 percent of gross receipts for rides, attractions, games and concessions run by the vendor. That amounted to $2.48 million in 2015 and $2.32 million in 2016.
The 27-page contract, which was renewed for the 2016 and 2017 fairs, calls on Amusements of America to provide at least 60 rides, 10 attractions, 65 games and up to 50 concessions.
Amusements of America spokesman David Margulies said when the company first won the contract in 1993, the Ohio State Fair was struggling financially. “They have teamed with the fair management over those years to bring a great fair to the people of Ohio. Both the fair attendance and revenue has grown over those years,” he said.
In 2004 a top official of Amusements of America pleaded guilty to a felony related to the investigation and resignation of Meg Scott Phipps, who was North Carolina agriculture commissioner, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office, eastern district of North Carolina.
The company’s then-general manager, Morris Vivona Jr., who was then-45 and of New Jersey, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to probation and house arrest. He was charged with colluding with another man to impede the government’s investigation and providing false statements in the investigation of Phipp’s 2000 campaign.
Amusements of America agreed to enter into a corporate compliance agreement and avoided criminal charges by allowing the U.S. Attorney’s Office to monitor the company for 18 months for “compliance with laws and ethical standards in the operation of its business,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney.
Phipps served time in prison after being convicted in both state and federal courts in the scandal, which involved bribery and illegal campaign contributions.
Asked for comment David Margulies, Amusements of America spokesman, said, “The other issue happened more than 13 years ago? Not sure what questions would be relevant now.”
Fire Ball tragedy
On opening day of the 2017 fair, the Fire Ball, a thrill ride that swings and spins riders, failed and sent riders and debris falling.
Kasich called for all rides to be shut down immediately after the accident until re-inspections were conducted. While the contract calls for $1,500-a-day penalties for any rides not operating for more than five hours, those fines won’t be assessed, Shoults said.
Read the state’s inspection reports for the Fire Ball for 2014-2017 here.
Read the state’s documents for Amusements of America for 2014-2017 here.
For a state-by-state comparison of ride oversight regulations, click here.
The manufacturer of the Fire Ball ordered the ride shut down worldwide.
Amusements of America, a family-owned company founded in 1939, said in a statement issued last week that the decisions to shut down the Fire Ball worldwide and re-open the Ohio State Fair midway point to a problem with the ride, not the operators or inspectors. “There is no evidence that operator error played a role in the accident,” the statement said.
The Ohio Highway Patrol and Consumer Product Safety Commission are investigating the incident.
Since 2008, there have been 75 accidents and nine deaths on amusement rides in Ohio, although at least four deaths were determined to be from natural causes, according to state records. Ohio law defines an amusement ride accident as an incident that requires a rider to be admitted to the hospital overnight. That means minor injuries such as whiplash or strains may not be reported.
Sometimes patrons don’t follow posted rules and advisories.
In August 2015, a 45-year-old man jumped a fence to retrieve a cell phone and wallet lost while riding the Raptor at Cedar Point. He was struck and killed.
“Let me make this perfectly clear: rides, as designed and manufactured, are safe. It’s when we don’t do exactly what the manufacturer says and follow the directions that are written for the patrons and the operators,” Martin said. “There is risk in everything in life but the risk is minimized if you follow the directions.”
Johnson, who speaks for the $3 billion-a-year traveling carnival industry, said of the Fire Ball failure: “I can tell you it is rare that a tragedy of this magnitude takes place on any amusement ride. Very rare.”