RALEIGH — Before the N.C. State Fair got underway, a team of 16 state Labor Department inspectors spent about 21/2 weeks going over the rides to make sure they met the state’s standards.
Once the fair opened to the public, however, the thrice-daily inspections were turned over to the owners of the rides.
The steps the state takes to ensure the safety of the more than 100 amusement rides at the fair – from pulse-quickening thrill rides to the more sedate kiddie rides – stepped into the spotlight this week in the wake of an accident on a ride called Vortex that sent five people to the hospital Thursday night.
Investigators haven’t determined whether the accident was caused by malfunctioning equipment or operator error.
The safety record of the Vortex, which state officials say is manufactured by Technical Park International of Italy, and the safety record of the ride’s owner, Georgia-based Family Attractions Amusement Co., wasn’t available Friday.
Officials at both companies couldn’t be reached for comment. Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said investigators were looking into the ride’s track record.
This is the first year that this Vortex ride has appeared at the State Fair and the first time Family Attractions has had a ride there.
Rides must comply fully
State inspectors follow a “100 percent rule” when inspecting rides, state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry said at a news conference Friday morning at the State Fairgrounds. That means rides have to be completely compliant with the manufacturer’s specifications or they aren’t allowed to operate.
Not every state adheres to that standard, which is established by state regulations.
“Some states will let you operate with one car not working, but we won’t let you do that here,” Labor Department spokesman Neal O’Briant said.
The state inspectors examine “every nut, bolt and pin,” said Labor Department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry. The amount of time needed to inspect each ride, she added, “varies depending on the complexity of the ride.”
The state doesn’t verify that ride operators have the training they need, though.
“We don’t look at training as far as operators are concerned,” said Tom Chambers, who heads the Labor Department’s ride inspection efforts. “They are supposed to be trained to the manufacturer’s specifications for the device.”
Given the scale of the fair, the responsibility for inspecting the rides three times a day is borne by the ride contractor after the fair opens, Chambers said.
“We say, shut the ride down. Go through an operations check,” Chambers said. “Make sure your (safety) fence is in place. Make sure there are no issues with the device and then document that.”
State inspectors who are on-site “spot check” to make sure that operators are performing the inspections, said Chambers, who verified that the Vortex ride was inspected as required.
Family Attractions was responsible for the inspections of the Vortex ride involved in the accident.
5 inspectors on-site daily
Typically, there are five state inspectors at the fairgrounds each day – two in the morning, two in the evening and one who works a split shift.
In addition to verifying that the ride operators are carrying out the required inspections, they roam the fairgrounds checking on things such as whether operators are paying attention and whether people are being properly seated in the rides.
During the course of a typical fair, they’ll also get called upon 20 to 30 times to investigate problems, said Chambers.
One of those problems arose Monday night with the Vortex, when inspectors received a call from the Wake County Sheriff’s Office that the ride was down.
“It turns out that there was a switch that was bad,” Chambers said. “They repaired it. They checked it, and the ride went back into operation.”
The switch, he said, was a solenoid that detects whether riders are locked into their seats and shuts the ride off if the locks aren’t properly engaged.
Thursday night’s accident was the first involving a ride since Powers Great American Midways of Corfu, N.Y., began running the midway in 2006 – with the exception of an incident where someone fell getting off of a ride.
“It was rider error,” said State Fair spokesman Brian Long, who added that the person wasn’t seriously injured.
Les Powers, president of Powers Great American, said that although his company doesn’t own the Vortex ride, “no matter whose ride it is, I’m sick to my stomach. … I’m the one who has the contract here.
“I didn’t sleep all night, worrying about the people.”
Powers said of Family Attractions: “I know their reputation. They have a pretty good reputation.”
But as of early Friday evening, Powers hadn’t been able to reach any of Family Attractions’ owners regarding the accident.