WRAL Investigates

State Fair officials stand by inspection process one year after accident

Posted October 16, 2014
Updated October 17, 2014

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— After an accident injured five people at last year's North Carolina State Fair, safety has been a big issue at this year’s fair. At a news conference Thursday, fair and local law enforcement leaders promised visitors would be safe. They used the words safe, safer, safety or safest 44 times during the 39-minute briefing.

“Welcome to the safest fair in the country,” state Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry told the media. “I don’t say that lightly. I say that with conviction.”

Vortex ride at NC State Fair WRAL.com archive: Vortex ride injuries

One change fair-goers will notice this year is the absence of the Vortex, a ride known for its wild twirls and flips. The ride started moving last year while people were getting off and dropped some unsecured passengers 20 feet onto the ride's metal floor. Five people were seriously injured.

A criminal investigation found that a safety mechanism designed to keep the ride from moving had been disabled. The owners of the ride face more than $100,000 in fines from two government agencies, as well as a $150 million lawsuit from four who were hurt.

Tom Chambers, chief ride inspector for the North Carolina Department of Labor, said last year’s incident “had nothing to do with the inspection process.”

“There’s nothing we can do to prevent a person from purposely circumventing a safety system on a device once the ride is certified,” Chambers said.

State Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Brian Long said some changes were made in the State Fair contract this year. Ride companies already promised employee background checks. Now, they're mandated. The minimum number of rides was reduced from 93 to 85, making it easier to keep tabs.

“What happened last year was a senseless tragedy that didn’t have to happen,” Long said. “We might be a little more wary of another company if we didn’t have some previous knowledge of them … like last year.”

That company last year was Family Attractions Amusement, which brought in the Vortex. Last year, six different companies provided rides. This year there are three – Powers Great American Midway, Wade Shows and newcomer Dreamland Amusements.

WRAL Investigates inspected safety records for Dreamland. It has been cited twice for safety violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 2011. One violation led to fines.

According to AmusementSafety.org, there have been eight rider injuries since 2012 linked to Dreamland, though details were not available. That's the same number attributed to the much larger Powers in the same time frame. Wade Shows had no reportable injuries.

No matter who supplies the rides, Chambers says his team inspects every ride piece as it's unloaded. Out of 4,900 inspections so far this year, he says his team found about 1,000 violations. Once rides are tested and certified, inspectors stroll the midway to look for any problems, but they rarely do random re-inspections.

“In order for us to have that kind of touch, we’d have to post an inspector on every ride out here,” Chambers said. “It isn’t feasible at all.”

Instead, they rely on operators to report problems and sign off on a checklist of required self-inspections, an honor system that Chambers says makes sense.

One change labor department officials have called for is tougher penalties for someone who willfully manipulates a ride that ends in serious injury or death. The bill did not make it through the legislature this past session.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • jmoxley2010 Oct 17, 2014

    You can background check the individuals all you want too it doesn't make them more suitable to operate the rides than criminals. These people run these rides for hours at a time dealing with thousands of fair patrons. They get tired and they neglect the equipment. Meaning random inspections are needed It looks like the fair officials don't want to provide the necessary man power to operate a safe fair.

  • Todd Jenkins Oct 17, 2014
    user avatar

    sure they stand by it…it would put them at fault if they shared any of the blame. troxler needs to go.

  • Ishitonthewralcorncobdesk Oct 17, 2014

    The "honor system" seems to work so well for rides, why not keep it?

  • Itsmyopinion67 Oct 17, 2014

    Yea...safety...and the year before it was E. coli.... Nah...staying home.

  • mewubbau Oct 17, 2014

    yeah--I must agree with the comments here, not making me feel good about my high schooler going to the fair and riding any of these rides?!?! I know I can't keep her in a bubble, but I do think there should be several inspectors hired to walk and perform random inspections. Fines should be accrued for any violations and/or mishaps. It should be "feasible" to make this happen.

  • Angie Cox Oct 17, 2014
    user avatar

    While I would not want to endure what that family endured and I do believe they should be compensated for medical bills/lost wages/pain and suffering but $150 million dollars is just crazy and I think you have to be a SICK individual to ask for that amount. Either that or the attorney is sick and greedy!

  • Jim Scarborough Oct 17, 2014
    user avatar

    It's not clear to me what these numbers on Dreamland mean. How many rides do they operate? How do their violations and injuries compare to those of other ride operators? How many problems per ride-hour and/or rider-hour?

  • Jon Gregory Oct 16, 2014
    user avatar

    I NEVER ride fair/carnival rides. The only ride I get on are bolted to concrete and don't travel all over the country.

  • busyb97 Oct 16, 2014

    yeah...because that worked out so well last year! This article certainly does NOT make me feel any better. It makes me want to try to find the rides operated by Wade Shows, and avoid Dreamland and Powers!!