Raleigh, N.C. — After five days of injuries and arrests related to the North Carolina State Fair, Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler praised the planning and safety efforts at the annual event and chalked up a second ride-related accident to just plain bad luck.
"The one thing that it's hard to do anything with is a crime," Troxler said.
He has been involved in the investigation that led to criminal charges against the operator of a ride that injured five when it started up unexpectedly Thursday night.
Witnesses said the Vortex had stopped and riders were beginning to disembark when the ride started up again and flung some riders to the ground. Three people remained at WakeMed Wednesday recovering from their injuries.
Ride operator Timothy Dwayne Tutterrow, 46, of Quitman, Ga., faces three counts of assault with a deadly weapon in the case. District Attorney Colon Willoughby and Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison have both said that there is a possibility of someone else being charged.
'Bad things happen to good people'
Fair operators in other states had nothing but praise Wednesday for the family company behind the Vortex, Family Attractions Amusement out of Valdosta, Ga.
Paul Winters, executive director of the Union County Agricultural Fair in South Carolina, said he was surprised to learn about the accident. He used rides from Family Attractions this year, has them scheduled to return in 2014 and is considering signing them to a long-term deal.
"Bad things can happen to good people, and I think that's what this situation is," Winters said.
"They're just good hard-working, God-loving people, and it's just been, you know, devastating to them," added Brenda Pierce, a member of the Tennessee Association of Fairs.
Pierce told WRAL News the owner of the company, Dominic Macaroni, called his contacts at the other fairs to let them know about the accident.
"He was upset. He was concerned, and his concern was about the people that were injured, hoping that they were going to be OK," said Billy Hancock, chairman of the Central Georgia Fair.
All vouched for Macaroni and the safety record of Family Attractions Amusement, although the Vortex was not used at any of their fairs.
"They're on top of all their safety inspections. Their paperwork is impeccable. Their staff is clean. Their rides are clean," Winters said.
In North Carolina, fair organizers will wait until the conclusion of the criminal investigation to determine if changes are necessary, Troxler said.
"There was a crime committed at the State Fair, and it resulted in an accident," he said. "You already have laws in place, and if somebody chooses to disobey the laws, how do you handle that?"
Troxler emphasized the safety of the fair, noting the arrest Sunday of a man accused of secretly photographing boys in a State Fair restroom.
"I'm proud that we caught that guy," Troxler said. "He's been among us out here for how long?"
The agriculture department spends between $600,000 and $700,000 annually to make the fair one of the safest places to be in the state, he said.
"With all the fire and rescue people and security we have at the fairgrounds, I don't think there's any other place in North Carolina that you're going to find that."
Relative to the 920,000 visitors at the fair, those injured – five Thursday in the accident on the Vortex, a worker injured as he disassembled another ride and a driver injured when his demolition derby car flipped – represent a tiny slice. Troxler said he was disappointed and shocked, but that the emergency response in each case was quick and thorough.
"How unlucky can you be that another ride named the Vortex is the one involved in an accident with the tear down," he asked.
Anesto Newell, 32, was injured about 3:30 a.m. Monday as he worked to disassemble that ride. He, too, was still in the hospital Wednesday. Family members said he suffered a broken back, pelvis and leg when a piece of the ride fell on him.