RALEIGH State officials say it may take a long time to determine the cause of an accident on the N.C. State Fair midway that sent five people to the hospital Thursday night.
Among the things likely to get serious scrutiny, though, is the mechanism that is supposed to prevent the ride involved, the Vortex, from operating when the restraint bars that keep passengers in their seats are pulled up and out of use.
Witnesses told investigators and The News & Observer that the ride restarted after an attendant released some of the restraints so that one set of riders could get off and another could get on. Transcripts of 911 calls also support that scenario.
“Oh my God, oh my God, they were getting off of the ride,” said one caller. “They weren’t in it. They were all trying to leave. They weren’t strapped anymore; they weren’t strapped any more.”
Another said, “I’m at the state fairgrounds. … On the Vortex ride, the ride started and it wasn’t supposed to. … It went up in the air, and people have fallen down on the platform.
“People are on the platform. Some of them are not moving.”
Two of those injured were reported to have been seriously hurt. According to witnesses and emergency call traffic, at least three were initially unconscious, and at least one had a serious head injury.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said Friday morning that his investigators are working with the state Labor Department to determine what caused the accident and said it’s still early in their work. Harrison had said earlier that there were 35 to 40 witnesses.
“We have a lot of witnesses to talk to,” Harrison said. “But it takes time.”
Harrison and others said they did not know when their investigation would be complete but said it would be thorough.
Switch was replaced
The ride had at least one other technical problem this week: On Monday, Wake County sheriff’s deputies working security at the fair noticed the ride was stopped and that workers were repairing it. Following standard policy, they notified fair officials, and ride inspectors went out to see what was going on.
A switch that prevents the Vortex from starting if the safety restraints aren’t locked down had gone bad, said Tom Chambers, chief of the ride inspection unit at the Labor Department. The switch was replaced, tested, and found to be working properly.
Fairgoer Ken Vrana of Cary said he and his wife were taking photos of rides about 8:45 p.m. – about half an hour before the accident – when they say they saw workers struggling with the safety restraints.
It’s a double restraint system: a set of bars that is pushed down over the shoulders of each passenger, then a longer bar that goes down across the front of each four-passenger row.
“At first it didn’t seem like the bars wanted to work, but they keep trying it and trying it, to the point there were three people trying to get these bars down,” Vrana said. “They just wouldn’t go down, so finally just in frustration, they just grabbed those things and slammed them.”
Two of five released
Authorities have not released the names of the injured. Harrison said they have asked for privacy and did not want him to release information about their conditions. He said he understood that two of the five had been released from the hospital by Friday morning.
The incident was called in at 9:16 p.m., according to emergency dispatchers. Department of Agriculture spokesman Brian Long said all five of the injured were en route to WakeMed in Raleigh by 9:30 p.m.
One of the injured was a ride operator, Harrison said. People from the same family were among the other four victims, he said, but authorities were unsure of their exact relationships. The ages of the injured ranged from 14 to 39.
The fair operated on its normal schedule Friday, as it will the rest of the weekend. The Vortex involved in the accident will remain closed for the rest of the fair, Long said.
Ride’s debut at the fair
There are two rides that bear the name Vortex at the fair, but they are very different, Long said. “The only thing these two rides have in common is a name,” he said.
The Vortex involved in the accident is located on the lower midway behind the Expo Center on the fairgrounds. It was manufactured by Technical Park International of Italy and was appearing at the N.C. State Fair for the first time this year.
The ride spins around as an arm flips riders upward toward the sky, spinning faster as the riders are flipped upside down at the highest point of elevation.
The other ride called Vortex, which is older, is located on the new midway and has been at the fair for many years, according to the agriculture department.
All rides at the fair are inspected three times daily, according to Delores Quesenberry, director of communications for the Department of Labor. The department had representatives at the scene Thursday night and will be responsible for checking inspection records and determining whether the accident was due to equipment malfunction or operator error.
Harrison said the City-County Bureau of Identification was also at the scene, helping to determine how the incident unfolded.
The last serious injury at the fair occurred in 2002, when a carnival worker was killed after accidentally slipping into the path of one of the Banzai ride’s swinging pendulum cars. In 2004, a carnival worker was injured taking down a ride at the end of the fair’s 10-day run when a 15-foot-high steel section fell on him.
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