A former fairground gypsy’s take on the Ohio State Fair ride accident

(This post got really long.  Sorry about that!  I just felt the circumstances deserved deeper thought.)

Granted, this event is old news.  It happened a couple weeks ago already, so I’m a little late to the commentary pulpit.  I had wanted to write about this sooner, but I needed to collect all of the pertinent information that I could find, and organize it into some semblance of order.

And besides–I was reeling.  Incidents like these are serious tragedies anyway, and they hit near and dear to my heart, as this industry was a huge part of my formative years.

I have my ducks in a row now–at least, most of them.  I think.

First, some background… (Content Advisory: this is likely to get graphic)

As you may know, there was a horrific accident at the Ohio State Fair on July 26 of this year.  A ride known as the Fireball came apart, killing one person and injuring 7 more, 2 of whom are still in critical condition (at least one is in a coma), last I heard.

Some background on the ride: the ride known as the Fireball is essentially a pendulum that swings along a linear path, back and forth, reaching heights of 40 feet.  The bottom of the pendulum splits into 6 shorter beams, at the end of each of which a 4-person car is attached.  So, riders are situated in a circle around the center of the pendulum, in 6 cars of 4 people each, whom are simultaneously spun at 13 revolutions per minute, adding another dimension of movement.  It’s actually a fun ride, swinging and spinning at once.

Fairground accidents happen all the time.  Around 31,000 people per year are admitted to emergency rooms as a result of having ridden on a ride at the fair.  People have died (22 in the US since 2010).  Although the percentage of riders suffering ill effects or death is quite small, that doesn’t matter–and offers little solace–to the people who draw the short straws: the odds are 100% for them.  These accidents are always tragic.  The lives involved are forever changed–or ended altogether.

So, before I go any further: my heart goes out, fully extended and bleeding, for the victims and their families.  I wish I could scoop them all up and hold them in my arms and erase their pain completely.  I wish I could hit an ultimate Undo Button and make the ride suffer a power failure in between runs, where nobody would be affected in any way.  There are so many things I wish.

As things stand, all I can do is pray, for the soul who has departed this earth and for the families in mourning and for the people still fighting for life and clinging and hanging on, hanging in there, and for their families, too.  I also pray for those who were not involved but had to witness the accident and/or its aftermath.  I pray for speedy healing, peaceful grieving, full recoveries, and smooth transitions.

(Another note: in NO WAY is this blog post meant to marginalize, downplay, disrespect, capitalize on, sensationalize, dramatize (or anything else) this event in any way.  I write this out of full respect for the people involved, the facts of the case, and to offer my own perspective as someone who grew up among this environment.)

(Another quick note: this post is merely my own opinion, based on my own experience, in a very different time and place.  I’m not an attorney, a physics expert, a witness, or anything else.  I’ve never been to the Ohio State Fair.  I don’t know of anyone who has.  I’m just an ex-fairground gypsy, with an unusual, semi-inside perspective.)

What’s different about this particular tragedy is that it was caught on mobile phone video by a fairgoer waiting in line to get on the ride himself, and posted to social media, without relying on the usual news dispersion channels of the mainstream media, escaping the clutches of censorship, editing, and supervisor approval.  This means that an uncensored video is out there.  It can be found on YouTube here (link to actual, raw, uncensored video, so please, only click on it if you want to see it.  It’s not as graphic as it could be (it could be worse), but it also doesn’t waste any time, and it’s disturbing for many).

Somebody caught the immediate aftermath on mobile phone video, which can be found here (another uncensored video; please proceed at your own risk; here again, the graphics could be worse, but also here again, they could be traumatizing for many; here is an extended version, which shows the ride breaking apart, people falling, and then some immediate aftermath).  

A synopsis of the video is this: the pendulum carrying the riders swings up to the right, and then as it is coming back down across the main platform, a crash can be heard and one of the cars (holding 4 people) can be seen detaching from the main body of the pendulum.  Since the number of injured or dead amount to 8, however, we know that riders in a second car were compromised as well.  As the arm continues to swing to the left, one can see debris and 2 human bodies fall.  The video does cut off before the people hit the ground.  (There is no visible blood nor are there body parts or anything like that.)

The news coverage wandered far and wide, beginning with early breaking news reports (link to video of news segment).  They also obtained shots of the ride after it had been shut down and interviewed riders (link to another news segment video) some of whom were injured and some of whom witnessed the ride become unhinged.  More interviews of fellow riders indicated that the 4-seat car hadn’t come apart without some warning; apparently, they noticed that the platform, from their perspective, was inching up closer and closer (link to news segment).  Some also noticed that their seats were shaking; (this one is a news segment, but is more graphic, showing part of the original video in very slow motion, right up until just before the catastrophic moment, and then a tearful and shaken witness describes what she saw, which is very graphic).  The riders knew something was wrong moments before the tragedy.  The original inadvertent filmmaker, interviewed on a news segment (which also includes clips of the accident) Julian Belinger, also knew something was wrong when riders and witnesses started yelling for the operator to slow the ride down; obviously, riders were shaken and had an ominous feeling.

Witnesses state (link to news segment, which consists of interviewing 2 young ladies, no accident footage) that the crash that can be heard in the video was actually the emergency stop function of the ride, because the emergency brakes are very loud.  I’m not sure about that – maybe that’s correct and maybe it isn’t.  From what I could see (I’ve watched this video more times than I can count), it looked to me like the swinging end of the pendulum had crashed into a support fence/railing, but I may be completely wrong.

When it comes down to answering exactly what happened, another witness’s statement might prove helpful.  She states that a piece of one of the 4-person cars “snapped off“.  This is consistent with what I saw in the video, combined with what I know about how these rides work (which isn’t much on the technical end; I’ve just grown up riding these rides from a fairly young age and many more times than most, and I also grew up watching them be put together and torn down, simply because that was a big part of my childhood environment). ❤

Apparently, the ride had indeed been used extensively during the summer fair season without incident, and it had passed 4 different layers of inspection that included more than 35 different criteria (which were weak, in my opinion, including “no visible unsecured items” (well duh!), and “motors, clutches, and controls functioning” (no shit, Sherlock)).

So, how and why did this happen?

The problem is multiple-fold….

First, you don’t have to have a degree in order to go be a ride jockey.  And who knows about what it takes to become an inspector.  My partner, who has worked security at fairgrounds from time to time, was surprised when I told him how rides are put together…and who puts them together.

My fairground experience (which spans almost 20 years) was in Canada.  Most Americans don’t know this, but Canada is generally much more safety-oriented and proactive than the US.  They’re much more reserved by nature.  And yet, I saw handwritten cardboard signs advertising for day laborers to come help them set up or tear down.  To sign up to work that day or that night, to trade some physical labor for some quick cash, you simply had to approach the ride jockey at the controls between ride runs and say, “pick me”.  They didn’t require experience.  They didn’t run any background checks.  They didn’t even verify your identity.  The same companies that operate rides in Canada also operate them in the US.  Many carnival companies cross the border.

The second issue is that of the amount of time (or rather, the lack thereof) in between fairs.  People believe ride operators have weeks to set up all the rides and games before the fair actually starts.

This is not so.  They have a matter of days, if they’re lucky.  The time in between fairs and the travel involved is known in the industry as a “jump”, and I remember one jump being so short that people died.  Edmonton ended on a Saturday night (Sunday morning, really), and Regina, the next fair, 14 driving hours away, opened on Monday.  

So you have these fatigued ride operators that have worked all day, stayed up all night to tear down, then drove their equipment to the next spot all night and probably well into the next day, and then they have a matter of hours to combine sleeping and setup before the next fair opened.  Regina eventually had to push its Buffalo Days opening day back a day, to Tuesday instead of Monday because too many drivers were falling asleep at the wheel and running off the road.  Even if the fatigued driver made it to the next spot…I wouldn’t want to be a blissfully unaware rider on that ride the next day!

The third issue is the matter of inspection and who does it.  Canada has its fair boards (the committee governing the fair and its grounds) as well as its own safety inspectors.  Some provinces even have safety committees (link to benign, non-graphic news story).  What does Ohio have?  The state Department of Agriculture.  That’s who oversees the safety of fairgrounds rides, due to a traditional association between fairs and agriculture (which is true in Canada but much more so in the US).  Yep, that’s right–a bunch of farm boys trying to certify complex and potentially dangerous machinery as “safe”.  And they’re still using paper forms, so there’s no rapid way to send alerts about iffy equipment.

Fairground officials claim that every ride is inspected every day, but this task ultimately falls on the ride operators themselves.  The ride operators may know their ride, but let’s face it – ride jockeys are not physics geniuses; they’re lucky if they finished school.  That’s not to put them down, but it is to point out that to my knowledge, there’s little required by way of qualifications.

Problem number 4 – in 2017 Ohio, summer rains had been pretty heavy just before the fair opened.  The news reported that state fair inspectors were facing a challenge in trying to get all the rides inspected and approved by the scheduled opening day of the fair.  They cross their hearts (link to video of news segment that does have graphic elements) that this wasn’t the case, but nice try; anyone conscious of the world around them knows that politics often prevail, especially when fairs are a pretty huge source of state revenue ($68.5 million annually, according to Wiki).  Eight inspectors were tasked with the job of inspecting over 70 rides, while some of the more competent experts recommend taking at least 8 hours to inspect the ride during its first-time pre-opening inspection (news segment video does show the accident, skip to 5 minutes and 28 seconds in, for this piece of the segment in which they interview an informative expert in this area).

Well, let’s do the math… Eight ride inspectors, 74 rides to inspect, and rainy weather delaying or slowing down inspections.  You don’t need to whip out a calculator to know that the inspections carried out were not likely to be the highest quality or the greatest in-depth.

Also at issue is the fact that there’s little regulation and even less consistency regarding fairground safety.  What little regulation there is varies by state; with 50 states, you’re going to have a lot of variation.

Problem number 5 involves what is inspected–as in, the criteria used.  “No loose pieces hanging off the ride” and “hey–the ride runs!” (to paraphrase) simply aren’t enough; a checklist full of rudimentary elements such as those did not–and will not–prevent the kind of accident that happened.  Had the ride been inspected more closely, by better-qualified people, they might have seen that there was corrosion of a support beam.  

There is also the better-known issue of metal fatigue, which was proactively acknowledged and addressed by the ride’s manufacturer, KMG, out of Holland/The Netherlands in a memo, marked “urgent”, from….2007.  A second memo from the manufacturer warned of potential issues with the seat restraints…in 2009.  

Remember that there were a total of 8 people affected (1 killed and 7 injured), yet each car only holds 4 people and only one car came off?  I wonder if that’s how the other 4 injured people, those not in the detaching car, managed to slip out.  The video shows the 4-person car detaching at a relatively low altitude, yet 2 people can clearly be seen falling from a much higher altitude; did their restraints malfunction?  That’s the impression I got when I first saw the video.

(Were these 2 separate memos simply ignored by the carnival companies who operated the ride?  And obviously the “35+ inspection criteria” weren’t specific enough to include subtle-but-disastrous structural defects.)

In short, the company stepped up 10 years ago.  They also stepped up (again) in light of this particular accident, when they immediately sent another memo, again marked “urgent”, pledging to conduct a serious investigation (knowing Dutch and German ride companies, they’re not lying), and, despite the fact that this was the first accident among 44 clones of the ride in its 18-year history (it was built in 1988 and debuted in 2002), the ride manufacturer itself, KMG, immediately ordered a complete shutdown of the ride worldwide.

So Problem #6 can be chocked up to “whoops–nobody acknowledged a 10-year-old memo.  Our bad!”.

Problem No. 7?  Maintenance.  KMG themselves performed maintenance service on the rides until just a few years ago; maintenance on the equipment has since been farmed out to an unknown/yet-unnamed entity.

“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, said Agriculture Director David Daniels.”

Source: Chicago Tribune.

Wrong.  Several elements of this statement are likely to be incorrect.

First, the ride was obviously NOT operated in the way the manufacturer intended.  If it was, the carnival company, who buys/leases the ride from the manufacturer and employs the ride operators, would have followed the manufacturer’s 2007 and 2009 memos.

Second, the inspectors more than likely come around near the end of the setup.  How else would they be able to check off criteria such as “motors, clutches, and controls functioning”?  You can’t do that when the ride is still in pieces, only partially assembled.  So no–it doesn’t seem like inspectors could come around and supervise the setup process at multiple stages.  It’s likely that the carnies arrived and started setting up, rain or shine like the troopers that they are, and then I have the feeling that the first round of inspectors rushed the initial inspections and three other layers of government took them at their word and signed off on them in time to get the fair open on schedule so that the state wouldn’t sacrifice fair revenue and citizens wouldn’t be disappointed.  After all, each fair is one stop (or “spot”) on a carnival company’s entire multi-month route; if a fair opening is delayed, it’s not like the fair can simply be extended for another day to make up for the day they missed, because the carnival company has to pack up and get going, on to its next “spot”.  (An example of a carnival company’s yearly route can be found here, which is the carnival company I’m most familiar with, as that’s the one that I grew up around for around 20 years.  Note: this company is not affiliated with the carnival company that services the Ohio State Fair and is not involved in this incident in any way.)

Third, let’s look more closely at the ride operators, for they’re the ones setting up the rides.  They put these rides together piece by piece.  If anyone was to see corrosion, it would be them.  Which is another reason why inspectors likely didn’t come around during setup (or if they did, it seems that they were grossly negligent) – they might have seen the corrosion (or, if not, why not?).  Either way, someone should have seen metal fatigue.  Someone should have seen corrosion.  Someone should have seen the resultant thinning of the metal structure.  If so many eyes are on this ride – at least one ride jockey and 4 layers of inspectors – then one of those pairs of eyes should have seen something.  (Update: more information about corrosion as it pertains to this particular incident; video is benign, nothing graphic.)

And if not–then there’s a serious, gaping weakness in the inspection criteria.  (And indeed there is.  An investigative article confirms this.)

This is not a case of manufacturer negligence, as they have been proactive and accessible at every turn.  This is also not a case of rider misbehavior.  To me, this does look like a case of shady carnival company (who either passed the buck, blaming the manufacturer (they’re dumbasses for doing that), or won’t return requests for comment, both responses being true to carnival company form), coupled with apathetic ride jockeys (as many carnies tend to be–I should know–I grew up around them), coupled with too many layers of incompetent and out-of-touch bureaucrats rushing under pressure to do the bare minimum and make their deadline.

The riders were completely innocent victims.  This should have never happened to them.  However, they unknowingly, innocently violated an unwritten fairground rule that few know about…

Never.  Go on.  Rides.  On.  The.  First.  Day.  Of the.  Fair.

Ever.

Most of the malfunctions occur on the first day of a traveling fair, because that’s the first time the ride is truly put to the test, and unfortunately, the unwitting guinea pigs are the first-day riders, who are blissfully unaware that they are indeed guinea pigs, and are just there to have a good time.

I’m not generally a litigious person, but if I were these families, I would end up owning a state agriculture department and an amusement/carnival company.  Jussayin’.  Godspeed to the victims and their families.  I wish to god(dess) this had never happened and I hope to god(dess) that it never happens again.  I have come upon a scene similar to this one immediately after the fact, when someone fell off the Rainbow ride in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1990s, and it was UGLY and EERIE.  I can only imagine what this accident was like for those who lived it.  My thoughts and prayers are with them and have been since the beginning.

FunFact: This ride (not this specific one, but one of the other 44 in use) is, incidentally, the most recent ride I had ever been on, back in Calgary, Canada in 2012.  It had come out since after my retirement from the road, and it looked awesome.  It was indeed a fun ride.  But although I would go on that ride again in Calgary (because of Alberta’s province-specific safety commission involving rides), I probably would not ride it in the United States.

 

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