NC State Fair ride became a 'deadly weapon' when tampered with according to warrants

akenney@newsobserver.comOctober 27, 2013 

— An employee of a Georgia rides company made the Vortex a “deadly weapon” by tampering with technology that should have kept the ride from launching into motion and dumping passengers on a State Fair platform, according to warrants and law enforcement statements in the case.

Three people remain hospitalized after Thursday’s incident. And a veteran rides inspector says that, by industry standards, only a failure or override of computerized sensors would have allowed the ride to start as its passengers sat helpless, their safety restraints unsecured.

Ken Martin, a Richmond, Va.-based safety consultant for fairs and carnivals, said that today’s rides work much like modern cars, using sensors and digital communications systems to detect and avoid unsafe conditions.

“They want to check and make sure, number one, the lap bars are down; number two, the lap bars are locked; number three, make sure all those systems are talking back and forth to each other,” Martin said Sunday.

Local authorities have charged operator Timothy Tutterrow, 46, of Quitman, Ga., with altering the Vortex’s safety systems after an inspection.

According to arrest warrants, Tutterrow “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously did assault (the victims) with an amusement ride, a deadly weapon, inflicting serious injury.”

Tutterrow’s attorney on Sunday declined comment on the operator’s actions, but said his client was “devastated” by the incident.

Witness accounts indicate that multiple riders were seriously injured because they couldn’t stay inside the two sets of 16 seats without seat restraints.

Manar Joudeh, 18, said she saw the ride start again after an attendant lifted safety restraint bars, when most modern rides should have been disabled, according to Martin. Passengers unable to jump off were lifted high into the air, then dumped out as the ride ran its routine.

“One of the guys hung on, and couldn’t hang on any longer, and then the girl fell, and hit on her side, and there was blood everywhere,” said Joudeh, 18.

A representative of the ride’s manufacturer, Technical Park of Italy, couldn’t be reached for comment Sunday.

‘Looked for a quick fix’

Sheriff Donnie Harrison said on Saturday that Tutterrow may have made an unauthorized change to the Vortex’s safety system in order to keep the ride running. As a result, investigators have charged Tutterrow with three counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury.

Such a charge does not mean authorities suspect intentional harm; the sheriff did not name a motive for the activity alleged by the sheriff’s office, beyond keeping the ride running.

“It sounds to me, from what I’ve read so far,” Martin said, “that there was a problem that went undiagnosed, and they just looked for a quick fix.”

Tutterrow, 46, is paid a yearly salary, and other staffers are paid a flat weekly fee, according to Joyce Fitzpatrick, a spokeswoman for ride operator Family Attractions Amusement Company.

However, Family Attractions Amusement’s income depends on ridership; it’s paid based on how many tickets it receives from riders, according to Marc Janas, public relations director for Powers Great American Midway, which for years has managed many of the fair’s games and rides.

This year was Family Attractions Amusement’s first at the North Carolina fair, and the company brought only one ride, the Vortex, Janas said

“He’s absolutely devastated”

Tutterrow’s attorney, Roger Smith Jr., has met with his client, but wasn’t ready to comment on the specifics of the charges because of the early stage of the investigation, he said Sunday. Tutterrow was due for a first appearance at 2 p.m. Monday and was being held on $225,000 bond at the Wake County Detention Center.

“Tim, he’s married, he has kids, and he’s absolutely devastated for what’s happened,” Smith said. Tutterrow has two grown children and a grandchild, he said.

The suspect has worked for ride-operator Family Attractions Amusement Company for four years, according to the company, which is based in Valdosta, Ga., about 20 miles from Tutterrow’s listed address.

“It is a horrible thing, and my thoughts are all toward the families that were hurt,” said Dominic Macaroni, an owner of Family Attractions Amusement for about 17 years.

Fitzpatrick said that the company’s safety record is good. The website AmusementSafety.org lists three unspecified injuries for Family Attractions Amusement in its database, but a representative of the site did not return a request for further information. Fitzpatrick said the company believes those injuries were from slips and falls.

Manager convicted in Tennessee case

The North Carolina fair’s 100-plus rides are inspected first by state Labor Department officials, but the owners are responsible for three daily inspections after the fair begins. Martin, the Virginia safety expert, cited North Carolina’s as one of the safest and best-run fairs in the country.

During the fair, state officials conduct spot checks and investigate problems. On Monday, they found that the Vortex had been disabled by a bad solenoid, which helps shut the ride off when seat restraints aren’t properly engaged, according to the state Department of Labor; the component was replaced and re-inspected.

Tampering in such cases can bring serious legal battles for operators. At the Rockin’ Raceway of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., manager Charles Stan Martin effectively disabled a safety system that should have stopped “The Hawk” from running while a woman’s restraint was unsecured, a jury found in 2005. A judge upheld the ruling in 2007; Martin was sentenced to four years of probation for reckless homicide.

Martin said portable attractions get “a bad rap,” but he acknowledged that reassembly and disassembly can cause wear and tear that requires careful monitoring.

Furthermore, he said, it’s hard to measure just how safe many rides and operators are. He described the industry as largely “self-regulated,” with standards built by consensus of about 500 people, from inspectors to insurers.

The most worrying effect of that lack of communication, Martin said, is that officials in one state can’t easily learn about a ride’s problems elsewhere.

The families of those still hospitalized have asked for privacy, and neither they nor WakeMed have disclosed information about their current medical status. They are Anthony Gorham, 29; Kisha Gorham, 39; and a 14-year-old whose identity has not been disclosed.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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