WRAL Investigates

State Fair officials stand by inspection process one year after accident

Posted October 16, 2014 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 17, 2014 10:37 a.m. EDT

— 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.”

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.