What you should know about the Ohio State Fair accident that left one person dead and several others injured.
Dana Branham/The Enquirer
CINCINNATI — Carnival-ride deaths may be rare, but states such as Ohio — where the Fire Ball broke apart on the Ohio State Fair’s opening night Wednesday in Columbus — have too few inspectors and not enough safety regulations, experts say.
The 18-year-old Marine recruit who died, Tyler Jarrell of Columbus, and seven others ages 14 to 42 who were injured shine a spotlight on the patchwork system of regulation throughout the United States, they say.
“It’s scary, isn’t it? … And it’s messy,” said Mark Hanlon, a Los Angeles-based engineer who works extensively with the amusement-ride industry. “Every state has their own regulation, … and a lot of them don’t have much.”
Between now and mid-September is peak state fair season: In addition to the California, Delaware, Maine, Montana, North Dakota and Ohio state fairs going on now, half of the other states also will have their statewide fairs in the next month and a half.
► Friday: Family of Ohio State Fair victim pursues wrongful death lawsuit
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Ohio has eight inspectors to check amusement rides annually and do spot checks — on-site inspections of how rides are set up and how operators are working the rides —around the state. Those inspectors issued more than 3,700 annual permits in 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
“When it comes to Ohio, do the math and look at how many hours do they get to do real inspections,” Hanlon said.
“It’s scary, isn’t it? … And it’s messy. Every state has their own regulation, … and a lot of them don’t have much.”
Mark Hanlon, Los Angeles-based engineer
A good inspection takes one to three days and should include X-rays of welds and joints, he said.
Inspectors looked over the Fire Ball thrill ride as it was being assembled and signed off on it hours before it flew apart, but it’s unclear whether they went to those lengths in this case or in how many other cases.
All rides at the fair are checked several times when they are being set up to ensure the work is done the way the manufacturer intended, Agriculture Director David Daniels said.
Michael Vartorella, Ohio’s chief inspector of amusement ride safety, said the Fire Ball was inspected three or four times before the fair opened.
Officials with the state’s Agriculture Department couldn’t say how many actual inspections it has conducted statewide.
The number of inspectors hasn’t changed since 2009 when The Enquirer last reported on the issue. Yet the number of permitted rides has climbed 23% statewide in that time.
Any ride needs to be inspected at least once to receive an annual permit. Fines for violations can reach $5,000 in Ohio. The state and neighboring Kentucky don’t have written training requirements for ride inspectors although both states send inspectors to training by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
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Officials with that organization did not return messages seeking comment.
Rides are safe, and state regulators do a good job at keeping operators on their toes, industry officials say, even while acknowledging the inconsistent standards across the USA.
“What happened in Columbus was tragic, yes, but it is a very rare event for us,” said Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. The Florida-based trade group represents operators of rides that move from place to place.
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“We work very hard with other organizations, manufacturers and our owner/operator members to raise the safety bar,” Johnson said. “The owners are the ones with the most at stake, after all. These are family-owned businesses for the most part, and the last thing they want to do is hurt someone.”
The sparse number of inspectors and low fine levels are par for the course for much of the country, experts say.
In some places, oversight is even less than in Ohio. California, Florida and New Jersey are cited as having very tough safety standards.
In California, the ride inspection agency is completely self-sustaining through inspection fees and fines.
In Texas, the regulation is very lax — even less than in Ohio.
“This is really tragic because I know some of these guys, but it still shows how inconsistent it can be,” said Ken Martin, an amusement ride safety analyst and inspector from Richmond, Va. “What happened in Ohio this week shows the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this stuff.”
The industry and state regulators often have a cozy relationship, Martin said. Some former officials move into private inspecting businesses or even jobs with bigger ride operators.
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“There’s a lot of sleeping together that goes on in this industry,” Martin said.
Johnson, who is chairman of Florida’s amusement ride advisory council, denied that even as he acknowledged that industry officials work closely with state legislators and regulators.
“We are always working to encourage higher safety levels,” he said.
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The current state-level system began in the 1980s when Congress turned over regulation of amusement parks and mobile-ride operators to states. That left state officials scrambling to create standards.
A few recommended inspection standards have been created since, but many states don’t follow those closely or only use parts of those recommendations.
Ohio rules haven’t changed much since the 1990s even after these serious accidents:
Authorities stand near damaged chairs of the Fire Ball amusement ride July 26, 2017, after the ride malfunctioned injuring several and killing one at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus (Photo: Barbara J. Perenic, The Columbus Dispatch AP)
• May 29, 2011. Dr. Amgad William Abdou, who lived in the Cleveland area at the time, was paralyzed after falling on a ride at an indoor inflatable park called Pump It Up in Cleveland. State inspectors did not fully check whether park employees knew how to instruct patrons on safety.
• June 12, 2010. Douglas Johnson, 54, of Greensburg, Pa., died nine days after an inflatable slide collapsed at a Kids Fun Day before a Cleveland Indians game.
• Aug. 13, 2003. Greyson Yoe, 8, of Madison Township, Ohio, was electrocuted in an improperly wired bumper car at the Lake County Fair and died less than a month later. Courts eventually found Ohio Agriculture Department inspectors liable.
At least 22 fatalities have been associated with amusement attractions nationwide since 2010, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is investigating Wednesday’s accident. It estimated 30,900 injuries associated with amusement attractions required an emergency room visit in 2016.
Earlier this year, Kansas voted to toughen its rules following the death of the son of a state legislator there. But lawmakers also voted to delay implementation of the new law until next year.
Overall, the current system relies too much on owners’ self-policing, Hanlon said.
In 2009, an Ohio Agriculture Department official said ride owners have the responsibility to set up rides correctly, the (Hamilton, Ohio) Journal-News reported after Tyler Maloney, then 11, of Middletown, Ohio, escaped serious injury June 27, 2009, when a large inflatable slide on which he was sitting was picked up in a gust of wind, flipping several times.
► September 2015: Fair stage collapse damages before Indiana court
► September 2015: Man dies working on Tulsa state fair ride
At the Ohio State Fair, all rides were shuttered Thursday on orders of the governor, but 28 low-impact amusements were reinspected and allowed to resume Friday. More than half remained closed.
Ohio’s fair is one of the biggest state fairs in the country, drawing 900,000 people last year.
“Maybe this will lead to a closer examination of what goes on there in Ohio,” Martin said.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow James Pilcher on Twitter: @jamespilcher
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