'Flying and falling': Parents question State Fair's safety after daughter's accident
Posted November 12, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — One minute, their 12-year-old daughter was happily flying in the air at the North Carolina State Fair. The next, she was falling 10 feet to the ground, crying and asking why.
“You heard a snap, and then you heard a snapping of cords,” said Rich Gallagher.
“It sounded like something broke,” said his wife, Renee Gallagher.
Brigitte Gallagher, of Raleigh, fell while on the bungee jump on Oct. 17 at this year’s State Fair. The cable holding her unraveled and sent her plummeting to the ground, leaving her with serious injuries, including a broken foot that will require multiple surgeries.
“I was up on the ride, and it broke and it dropped me behind the pad,” she said. “It kind of felt like I was flying and then falling and everything at once … I kind of hit feet first, and then I kind of rolled backwards.”
Brigitte’s accident marks the second time in two years that someone has been seriously injured at the State Fair. On Oct. 24, 2013, five people were injured when The Vortex – a ride known for its wild twirls and flips – started moving while people were getting off and dropped some unsecured passengers 20 feet onto the ride's metal floor.
A criminal investigation found that a safety mechanism designed to keep the ride from moving had been disabled. The ride's operator, Timothy Dwayne Tutterrow, and owner, Joshua Macaroni, were later arrested in the case.
What is different about Brigitte’s case, though, is that fair officials quietly investigated her accident outside of the media spotlight. Her story has not been reported until now.
Brigitte’s parents say it’s the lingering emotional trauma of the accident that they can't seem to get past. Rich Gallagher remembers his heart dropping as he watched his daughter fall. His wife, a normally polite, unflustered woman, says she began shoving strangers aside to get to her daughter.
"I was a crazy person, pushing people out of the way," Renee Gallagher said. “I was on my feet as soon as I heard the snap. I was on my feet before she was even dropping, and when I got to her, she was just on the ground shaking, (saying), ‘Mommy, why did it drop me?’”
The impact of the fall broke the second metatarsal bone on the top of Brigitte's left foot. She also suffered a torn ligament and broke one of her braces. Doctors surgically implanted a plate and six screws in her foot, but she will eventually need more surgery to remove the hardware, her parents say. For now, Brigitte is in a wheelchair to keep her weight off her foot. She’ll soon get a cast and then a boot when she moves to crutches.
The recovery process will be long and has already caused Brigitte, a seventh-grader at The Franciscan School in Raleigh, to miss out on competitive diving and social activities, including her first middle school dance, pumpkin carving with her art club and trick-or-treating at Halloween.
An investigative report by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture cited a man who witnessed Brigitte's accident. He said he thought a cable on the bungee jump malfunctioned. The operator of the amusement said the motor failed to capture the cable when it was supposed to.
The Department of Agriculture has turned over its findings to the state Department of Labor. A spokeswoman for the labor department said the investigation is ongoing and the findings will be released when the report is complete. The labor department is responsible for inspecting rides when they are set up. The rides are then supposed to be inspected three times a day by the operators.
“It would’ve been inspected before it could even operate at the fair,” said State Fair spokesman Brian Long. “That’s the thing about North Carolina’s ride safety standards – they’re among the most strict in the country.”
Long says Brigitte’s accident was the only one reported at the fair this year.
“It appears there was some sort of mechanical failure with the device, which led to the accident,” he said. "We're wishing Miss Gallagher a speedy recovery from her injury."
The bungee attraction Brigitte was injured on is owned by Pam McDonald of Reddick, Fla., who was under contract with Powers Great American MidWays to bring the attraction to the fair. WRAL Investigates spoke with McDonald, who declined to comment. Powers Great American MidWays did not respond to repeated requests for a response.
Long says the bungee ride was fixed after Brigitte’s accident. It was re-inspected and allowed to continue operating for the rest of the fair. While Brigitte’s injuries weren’t as severe as those suffered on The Vortex a year earlier, her parents and their attorney say it brings ride safety into question again.
“Two years in row now there's been accidents, serious accidents, where children have been injured at the State Fair, and this really needs to stop,” said Raleigh attorney Mike Maurer. “The right thing to do for the future and other children would be the inspect these things better or not allow them to take place on the property at all.”
“When kids go to a State Fair, they have every expectation that the rides are going to be safe,” he added. “The parents also have that same expectation.”
Long says they should still have that expectation. Nearly 930,000 people attended this year’s State Fair, which lasted 11 days and featured more than 100 rides
“Because of this intense scrutiny, people can feel confident that they can come to the fair and ride the rides enjoy themselves and do it safely,” Long said.
The Gallaghers aren't convinced.
“The first thing (Brigitte) said to me is, "Dad, I don't ever want to come back here,’” said Rich Gallagher. “That is sad. It's supposed be a family fun event.”