RALEIGH — Three people remain hospitalized nearly a week after the Vortex disaster at the N.C. State Fair, and the ride where they were seriously injured stands as one of the last remnants of the 11-day event.
As crews clean the fairgrounds, the two-armed machine remains an active crime scene for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. It will be guarded during the investigation by law enforcement officers, fairgrounds personnel and a recently erected fence, according to Richard Johnson, chief of operations at the sheriff’s office.
The ride, which injured at least five people when it unexpectedly started last week while riders were disembarking, remains under the jurisdiction of a search warrant, he said. The Sheriff’s Office arrested ride operator Timothy Tutterrow, of Quitman, Ga., on suspicions that he had tampered with the ride’s safety systems, which should have prevented it from starting when riders’ restraints were not in place.
Tutterrow faces three charges of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury.
The investigation “is not going to be real quick,” Johnson said. “We’re going through this a nut, a bolt at a time. You have a serious criminal matter, but you also have a horrendous civil matter coming behind it. They’ll be taking what we do (to use in their cases), and if we don’t do it right, we’ll be told about it real quick.”
The Sheriff’s Office has taken custody of the Department of Labor’s public records pertaining to the case. The department kept no copies, and the Sheriff’s Office has refused to make them available, citing them as evidence.
“Once the evidence involved in a crime is seized ... it’s got to be held, it’s got to be secured,” Johnson said. Only a judge or District Attorney Colon Willoughby could authorize that release, he said. Fair officials report that, to their knowledge, no law enforcement agency has requested their records.
The Department of Labor’s Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau also is conducting an investigation and has declined to issue any comment on the investigation until its completion. Spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry was unsure whether that investigation was proceeding while the Sheriff’s Office had possession of relevant public records.
The ride was inspected, as required, before the fair and after the replacement of a component several days before the disaster. State inspectors use manufacturers’ manuals “as their guide” when conducting inspections, according to Quesenberry.
Records released by the State Fair, meanwhile, show that the Vortex that injured its riders was one of 29 “spectacular” rides operated by Powers Great American Midway or its subcontractors. A contract required Powers to keep 28 of the “spectaculars” operating or pay a $5,000 daily fee; however, it does not appear that Powers was in danger of crossing that line.
All of the largest rides remained in operation until the Vortex went awry, with the exception of an earlier malfunction that took the Vortex offline temporarily, according to Wesley Wyatt, the fair’s manager. The contract also allowed the state to levy smaller fees when more than three rides of any type were down, but Wyatt told The Associated Press that no fines were levied against Powers.
The document also outlined parts of the financial workings of the midway business. The midway operator, Powers, agreed to sell tickets and provide most of the materials and rides for the midway. For that privilege, it agreed to pay the fair $1 million or more. The company was “up to date with payment,” according to Wyatt, and is owed $50,000 by the fair pending its move out of the grounds.
Much of the clean-up work at the fairgrounds will be finished by the end of the week, but there’s no end in sight for the legal and criminal follow-ups.
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC