Raleigh, N.C. — Chaos reigned on a portion of the North Carolina State Fair midway Thursday night when five people were injured on a ride, according to 911 calls released Friday.
The Vortex ride was shut down Friday and won't restart before the fair ends Sunday night, fair spokesman Brian Long said, as investigators try to determine what led to the mishap.
The victims range in age from 14 to 39 and included a ride operator, officials said. Two were treated at WakeMed in Raleigh and released, but at least one of those still in the hospital was in critical condition Friday afternoon.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said the injured have requested privacy, so he didn't identify them.
According to a description of the Vortex, the main arm is hydraulically lifted to a 30-degree angle, and the V-shaped center of the ride starts rotating while car arms on each side spin, twirl and flip passengers upside down.
Joel Gillie was standing near the Vortex when the accident happened and said he heard people being thrown off and landing on the metal floor of the ride as they fell.
"I just heard slamming, and it was more than just normal walking. It was multiple slams. I then I heard people screaming and running," Gillie said. "Toward the front of the ride, there was someone lying there. There was also someone toward the back of the ride. They were working on someone around there. I couldn't see that person around there, but there was someone around there."
Eight 911 calls about the accident were recorded, and callers told dispatchers that people were bleeding and unconscious.
"The ride started, and it wasn't supposed to. It went up in the air, and people have fallen down on the platform," one man told a 911 dispatcher.
"The ride turned upside down and dumped everybody out," a woman told a dispatcher.
"The ride broke loose, and five people fell straight from the sky – a 20-foot drop," another man said.
"They were getting off the ride, and the guy ... I guess he accidentally hit the button again," a sobbing woman told a dispatcher. "They were all trying to leave. They were outside the seats. They weren't strapped anymore. So, the ride kept going, and everyone just fell off."
Like Gillie, midway worker Andrew Miller, whose game booth is next to the Vortex, said he heard bangs and screams when the mishap occurred.
"They came with the ambulance and everything. People were crying. It was really crazy," Miller said.
Although three rides near the Vortex were closed Friday as authorities investigated the accident, Miller's booth remained opened.
"It's terrible. People come here to have fun, and something like that happens," he said. "It's terrible."
Jeff Hammerstein, district chief for Wake County EMS, said the last of the five injured people was on the way to WakeMed within 20 minutes of the accident. He credited a team of paramedics on bicycles that the agency stations at the fairgrounds to move through crowds more quickly.
"We're talking about a lot of people packed into a very small area," Hammerstein said. "What the bike team allows us to do is to get paramedic level care to the patient's side in a very short amount of time, usually from 120 to 180 seconds or so."
Ride had earlier problem
Investigators haven't determined what caused the accident, and Harrison said it could be days before they finish talking to witnesses, from people who were on the ride to spectators to nearby midway workers.
Inspectors plan to examine every part of the Vortex, said Tom Chambers, who heads the state Department of Labor division that inspects amusement rides at the State Fair.
On Monday, Chambers said, a safety switch failed, and the ride was temporarily shut down. Operators repaired the switch, which locks the ride when the harnesses that hold riders in their seats are up, and state inspectors examined it and found it to be working fine. So, the ride resumed operation.
Preliminary reports of Thursday's accident indicate the ride stopped, and people were getting off when it restarted, officials said. Chambers said it's too early to tell if a switch failed again or if the ride had a different malfunction.
Ken Vrana, who saw the accident, said the Vortex was having problems with its harnesses Thursday night. Three operators spent about 10 minutes trying to get some of the harnesses to lock in place, he said.
"The left-hand side was working fine, but it was the right-hand side that wasn't working. So, they'd lift all the bars up and try again," Vrana said. "(Finally) the one operator took those bars and just slammed them down – not out of frustration or anger, but he just thought that would do it. He slammed it down, and they started the ride up."
Vrana said he noticed the problem at 8:45 p.m. The accident was reported at 9:17 p.m.
"It was clearly a mechanical problem, but the problem was made worse by the fact that the operator, knowing the history of the problem with that ride, didn't shut it off. They should have just shut it down," he said.
Long said there are two rides on the midway with the Vortex name. The one where the accident occurred hasn't previously been at the fair, he said, and the two rides operate differently and have different manufacturers.
Valdosta, Ga.-based Family Attractions Amusement Co. owns the Vortex involved in the mishap, and an organization that tracks amusement ride safety nationwide said the company's rides have been involved in three incidents involving injuries in the past. It wasn't immediately clear whether the Vortex was involved in any of those previous incidents.
The safety record goes beyond rides.
Family Attractions has a fleet of trucks to transport their rides to fairs, and federal records obtained by WRAL News show its vehicles were pulled off the road 42 percent of the time during inspections, which is twice the national average, and the company's drivers were parked 29 percent of the time, which is six times the national rate.
During the past two years, Family Attractions trucks were cited for 54 maintenance violations, 10 drivers were behind the wheel longer than allowed and two were cited with drug or alcohol offenses.
Company officials couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Officials: State Fair rides safe
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler called the accident "an isolated incident," and he and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry tried to assure people that all other midway rides are safe.
"If my children were here, I would put them on it," Berry said, noting that her agency's 16 inspectors spent more than two weeks before the fair opened examining each of the 107 rides to ensure they met manufacturer specifications.
"They've been gone over thoroughly – thoroughly – for all the safety issues," she said.
Once the fair opens, Chambers said, the state relies on the honor system, asking that operators inspect their own rides three times a day to make sure they continue to meet specifications.
"We say, 'Shut the ride down. Make sure you do an operations check, make sure your fence is in place, make sure there's no issues with the device and then document that,'" he said.
Teams of two state inspectors walk the midway daily during the fair to make spot checks and ensure operators are loading and unloading riders properly and are paying attention when their rides are running, he said.
Midway operator Powers Great American Midways also has nine ride inspectors on site throughout the fair, officials said.
When it comes to the ride operators, the state also relies on Powers to ensure they are properly trained and to conduct background checks and drug tests on them, Chambers said.
Powers officials couldn't be reached for comment Friday, but they posted a message on the company Facebook page expressing sympathy for those injured and noting that the company is working with investigators to determine what happened.
“Safety is something that we take very seriously, and so this accident has shaken us all deeply," Troxler said.
Many fairgoers said Friday that the accident wouldn't scare them away from midway rides, but others were leery.
"I grew up in North Carolina and have been coming every year – a lot of years – and nothing's ever happened," James Green said. "So, I don't really worry about it much."
"It is a little bit concerning, but overall, I have to trust authorities that they're going to do the right thing," Gay Price said. "We'll probably still be brave and ride some things, but anything too daring, maybe we'll (back) off that today."
"I don't like extreme rides in general, but then, when something happens like an accident, it makes me think twice," Bridget Harris said. "But I'm pretty sure they inspect it and have it safe for the next go round and everything."
Powers has operated the State Fair midway since 2006, and Thursday was the first ride-safety incident that has occurred in that time.
It isn't the first accident involving rides at the State Fair, however.
In 2002, a midway worker was thrown from a platform of a ride and killed when he was struck by the legs of a passenger on the ride. In 1998, three people were injured when a wheel-bearing seized on a roller coaster causing a rear-end collision between three cars.