Year after Ohio fair tragedy, families 'live with this every day'
Posted July 16, 2018 2:59 p.m. EDT
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A year after the Ohio State Fair went from a scene of Americana to a deadly midway horror show, little has changed in the way Ohio's eight full-time inspectors oversee the state's 3,800 rides, the Dayton Daily News found.
Eighteen-year-old Tyler Jarrell was killed and seven others were seriously injured in 2017 when a gondola on the Fire Ball ride snapped off and flung riders into the air and slammed them down onto the pavement in front of spectators.
Ohio's inspectors are responsible for checking ride safety at 51 go-kart tracks, 362 portable companies such as fairs and festivals, and 149 permanent companies, including two of the nation's largest amusement parks: Cedar Point and Kings Island. They're also assigned to inspect water parks and inflatable bouncy houses.
Lawmakers seeking a change in regulations said they are concerned that the volume of ride inspections has increased, but a similar rise in staff and funds hasn't followed.
"I'm concerned for the safety of the people who are riding the rides," said state Rep. Jim Hughes, R-Columbus.
Hughes is co-sponsoring a bill, known as Tyler's Law, in hopes of improving ride safety.
Amber Duffield, Jarrell's mother, said she is supporting the bill because she doesn't want any other families to suffer the tragedy her family has faced.
Because of an extended summer recess, the bill likely won't see action in the Ohio House for months -- certainly not before most of Ohio's fairs have passed. Hughes wants the bill to have an emergency clause so it takes effect as soon as the governor signs it.
The 2018 Ohio State Fair begins Wednesday, July 25. A moment of silence is planned to honor Jarrell and recognize the accident.
Aside from allowing fines of up to $500 for failing to keep mandated records, Tyler's Law -- House Bill 631 -- would beef-up training requirements for ride inspectors and set a minimum number of inspectors assigned to each ride. Hughes also wants the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which oversees ride inspection, to give hiring preference to professional engineers or those who hold national certification as ride inspectors.
Inspectors cleared the Fire Ball on the morning of July 26. Amusements of America, the ride and attractions vendor at the state fair, performed a daily inspection and maintenance check.
But by the afternoon, unsuspecting fair-goers witnessed the gondola carrying Jarrell and others crack off and throw riders into the air. Some even captured the horrific sight on their cellphone cameras -- footage that filled the national airwaves and would later become evidence in the investigation.
State troopers cordoned off the scene as first responders treated the injured. Gov. John Kasich ordered all rides at the fair closed and the ride's Dutch manufacturer, KMG, shut down all Fire Ball rides worldwide.
KMG found excessive corrosion caused a metal arm to break on the gondola. The Ohio Department of Agriculture decided not to fine Amusements of America. In fact, the company will return to the state fair this year -- its 26th season -- as the rides and attractions vendor.
Settlements with third-party ride inspectors and Amusements of America were reached with the families of two victims. Jarrett's estate agreed to a $1.27 million settlement, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Jennifer Lambert, a teenager who suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident, settled for $1.8 million, the newspaper reported. More victims are pursuing settlements.
The victims released the state of Ohio from responsibility, meaning no state money will be paid to families. Ohio gives its ride inspectors immunity from negligence accusations.
The Ohio State Fair decided to continue its contract with Amusements of America after reviewing the company's track record and reports from the Ohio Highway Patrol and Consumer Products Safety Commission, said Alicia Shoults, the fair's spokeswoman.
"In addition, every ride owned by Amusements of America has undergone a thorough analysis and detailed inspection process," she said.
For the surviving victims, their injuries remind them each day of the midway disaster.
"They live with this every day," said Rob Miller, who represents 37-year-old victim Tamica Dunlap. "The families live with this every day, and they still will for a long time."
State 'confident' in staff
Ohio licenses 1,000 more amusement rides now than it did in 2006 -- a nearly 37 percent increase -- but the state Department of Agriculture has not hired more inspectors to handle the increased workload, state records show. State spending on amusement ride safety inspections was $1.25 million in 2017, just 6.5 percent more than the $1.17 million spent in 2006, state records show.
In 2006, the state licensed 2,780 rides, 309 portable ride companies and 122 permanent facilities. In 2017, the department licensed 3,786 rides, 362 portable ride companies and 149 permanent facilities.
Ohio Department of Agriculture spokesman Mark Bruce said the biggest increase in rides is attributed to inflatable bouncy houses, which officials tend to inspect during the winter months when carnivals and amusement parks aren't operating.
Since the Fire Ball incident, agriculture officials began to more clearly note on inspection forms that ride owners have complied with manufacturer-issued safety bulletins, particularly when it comes to looking for signs of corrosion, Bruce said.
After the Fire Ball accident, ASTM International, which recommends global standards for all sorts of manufactured items, began reviewing standards for amusement rides, Bruce said. Engineers and other experts, including one from Cedar Fair and one from Ohio Department of Agriculture, are reviewing all requirements and may recommend changes.
"We are confident in the number of our staff and we're confident in the work that they do," he said. "We are part of this work and we are waiting on this work to determine if the recommendations should be adopted into our code and regulations."
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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