Regulators, reports say rides safe, but accidents happen

By the Numbers

Ohio ride safety inspection program

Number of inspectors: 8

Division budget: $1.25 million

Number of accidents:

2014 - 12

2015 - 5

2016 - 3

Number of deaths:

2014 - 0

2015 - 1

2016 - 0

Source: Ohio Department of Agriculture

Injuries and deaths linked to amusement park and festival rides in Ohio are uncommon, an I-Team investigation found, and when incidents do occur state regulators say ride operators usually are not at fault.

Three people have been injured on rides in Ohio this year, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which inspects and licenses more than 3,700 rides across the state. An injury is recorded if someone requires immediate hospital admission and an overnight stay. Every injury leads to a state review.

One of the injuries was at the Kings Island water park in May. Officials said it resulted from more than one person going down a slide at the same time. The park was not found at fault, according to the state.

The two other accidents were in the Cleveland area. A man in Brook Park was injured in a go-kart accident, and in Solon a kid doing flips in a bounce house hurt his back.

The last ride-related death in Ohio was last year, when a 45-year-old man jumped over a fence to enter a restricted part of Cedar Point to retrieve a cell phone that fell out of his pocket when he rode the Raptor. He died after the 57-mph ride hit him.

Area county fair officials and state ride inspectors say they are doing everything in their power to make sure rides are safe to spin, scramble and swing when opened to the public — including at the Montgomery County Fair, which opens Wednesday.

State inspection reports for the company that supplies rides for the Montgomery, Greene, Butler and Warren county fairs show no major issues identified this year, though inspection reports wouldn’t note minor issues fixed before the rides operated, the analysis found.

While this is true every year, concerns about ride safety are on the forefront of many patrons’ minds after a series of recent tragedies on rides at amusement parks and fairs in other states.

A 10-year-old boy was killed on a slide at a Kansas water park; a 3-year-old was hospitalized after an accident on a wooden rollercoaster in Pennsylvania; and several girls were injured after a Ferris wheel gondola in Tennessee flipped and dumped them 30-to-45 feet.

“It is a concern, obviously, especially for my youngest son, but I know they are inspected and I guess you trust the workers will do their job,” said Beth Guggenbiller, who was at the Great Darke County Fair last week with her 7-year-old son and two older children.

Mike Vartorella, the state’s chief ride inspector, said most accidents come from people not heeding warnings and riding despite having a pre-existing condition, or putting kids on a ride who aren’t ready, or maybe putting kids of different sizes in a bounce house together.

“These are things parents really need to pay attention to,” he said.

Good safety record

A Cincinnati-based company called Triple Treat Shows provides the rides for the Montgomery, Butler and Warren county fairs. Vartorella said he will have a team at the Dayton fairgrounds before the rides open, inspecting them for safety.

“We’re very fortunate to have Triple Treat, because they have a very good safety record,” said John Friedline, Montgomery County fair board president.

State inspection reports obtained by this newspaper show Triple Treat’s rides were inspected at several events this year, including the Greene, Butler and Warren county fairs. Those inspections found no major issues. State inspectors ordered the company to check a possible crack on a ride called Super Jet at an inspection in Pickaway County in July, and another ride needed seat numbers, but no show-stoppers were identified.

A search of this newspaper’s archives found that Triple Treat has had few reported problems in recent years. It last made negative headlines locally in 2005, when sheriff’s deputies arrested a man for operating a Ferris wheel drunk at the Warren County Fair.

In 2000, a customer in Warren County sued, accusing a ride operator of ignoring a child’s injuries. The lawsuit was later dismissed.

Neither state records nor media reports suggest problems in recent years.

“I’ve never been concerned with our rides because I have so much trust in our ride company,” Friedline said, adding that his favorite rides tend to be the Ferris wheel and bumper cars.

“I’m not a lover of anything that goes fast,” he admitted.

What inspectors see

Before a single ride at the Great Darke County Fair could spin, flip, coast or glide on opening day last week, Vartorella’s team had to declare it safe.

“These have all been initially inspected for the state. We’re going to do a supplemental inspection, make sure they’re up to manufacturers’ specifications and open them up to the public,” he said as one of his three on-site inspectors engaged and tugged on shoulder restraints on a scrambler-type ride.

Statewide, eight state inspectors visit 238 permanent facilities — ranging in size from massive amusement parks to standalone bounce-houses in family restaurants — and 240 portable ride companies.

The absence of findings on state inspection reports doesn’t mean the team didn’t find any problems. It means everything was brought into compliance before inspectors left.

That Friday, for example, ride inspectors hung orange tags on ride after ride noting small problems. On a kiddie ride, an inspector noted one of the little helicopters was missing a door handle, and another door was missing a spring to hold it shut. Bolts needed tightened on a kiddie motorcycle ride. Another ride had a broken seat belt.

“If it doesn’t have the proper restraint system in it, obviously we’re not gong to let people into it,” Vartorella said.

Inspectors walked the ride company through the issues, making them fix and replace the parts before giving a clean inspection report.

The roughly two dozen rides at the Darke County Fair are provided by Kissel Brothers. Company proprietor Carmi Kissel said she has eight men who inspect every ride every day and won’t open unless they meet manufacturer specifications.

She said the rides were set up the night before and state inspectors got there that morning before her people did, otherwise the issues inspectors found would’ve been fixed beforehand.

A recent Associated Press analysis found wild inconsistencies in how rides are inspected from one state to the next. They found that six states have no laws requiring inspections, and states such as Tennessee rely on private inspectors hired by ride operators.

Twenty-nine deaths have been reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission since 2010, the AP reported; and an estimated 37,300 people went to emergency rooms in 2015 after being injured on amusement rides.

‘We pay attention’

Kissel said Ohio is one of the most thorough in enforcing ride safety and the whole industry is closely watching to see what was behind the recent tragedies.

“We pay attention to it,” she said. “We want to know.”

As inspections pushed back the rides opening for an hour or so in Greenville, families strolled the midway, lured by game barkers and snacking on funnel cake.

“The kids are frustrated because the rides haven’t started,” said Cassandra Hartzell, flanked by her 2- and 11-year-old children and 10-year-old niece. “I’m glad (about the delay) in a way, because they’re here working to make sure (the rides) are safe and secure.”

The Montgomery County Fair runs Aug. 31 through Sept. 5. Fair officials said they're not sure exactly what rides Triple Treat will offer this year. One new feature will be "knockerball," where participants can smash into each other wearing an inflatable ball. A circus will also be new this year, joining familiar favorites such as a rodeo and demolition derby.

Greg Wallace, executive director of the Montgomery County agricultural society, will be managing his first county fair this year. He was previously fire chief of Carlisle. He said he has followed the news of tragedies in other states and said, “That’s something that everybody wants to prevent.”

“I know from what I’ve seen, the state seems to be very thorough in their process, and the safety of the rider is their No. 1 concern,” he said.

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