Vortex’s modern safeguards couldn’t protect riders in NC State Fair accident

akenney@newsobserver.comNovember 2, 2013 

The Vortex is a modern ride. With its two whirling arms, it’s bigger and faster than the rides that became popular after World War II – but the Vortex’s generation of machines also is simpler and safer, according to industry specialists.

While older amusements were taken apart and bolted together, piece by piece, the Vortex unfolds from its trailer. Where its predecessors had cotter-pin locks, the Vortex’s computers automatically secure riders.

Yet none of the amusement industry’s new hallmarks could stop human meddling from sending the machine horribly awry on the night of Oct. 24, according to the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. A safety system should have grounded the machine while its riders sat unrestrained, but the Vortex somehow spun into motion at the worst possible moment, dumping riders onto the metal deck.

Two days after the disaster, Sheriff Donnie Harrison accused the Vortex’s operator of tampering with the ride. Timothy Tutterrow, according to the Sheriff’s Office, disabled decades of progress, possibly in order to keep his ride running.

A week after the fair ended, investigators continue to comb the fenced-off ride for clues as to how or why Tutterrow could have tampered with the Vortex. His family wonders the same.

‘Not a bad guy’

The news traveled quickly through Tutterrow’s family, and his ex-wife’s. And just as countless strangers did, the people who knew Tim Tutterrow asked whether he really could have put dozens of lives at risk.

A bald, 46-year-old man with a goatee, Tutterrow knows midways well. The operator has worked rides and carnivals for much of his adult life – he had even met his late ex-wife at the Kentucky State Fair more than 20 years ago.

“Tim’s not a bad guy – he really ain’t,” said Stuart Mouser, nephew of Tutterrow’s former spouse.

Tutterrow and Wendy Mouser had a tumultuous relationship. They moved among Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia, splitting and reuniting twice over seven years as Tutterrow bounced from job to job, including welding and work at a Subway restaurant.

The relationship ended in a “pretty bitter” divorce, Stuart Mouser said. When they were together, though, Tutterrow was a fixture at family holidays. He held his family close, and he worked as a volunteer firefighter, suffering injuries during a major industrial fire in the early ’90s, Mouser said.

“I’ve never known him to do any kind of harm. I don’t think he did anything out of spite,” Mouser said. “If something happened, it was out of stupidity, is my opinion, or maybe ignorance.”

But in this case, prosecutors won’t have to prove spite. They might only aim to show that Tutterrow acted with criminal negligence when he allegedly tampered with the machine.

Rides’ workings are increasingly complex, but it’s not unheard of for an operator to learn the ropes, according to Ken Martin of Richmond, Va., an expert in ride inspections.

While work on a ride requires extensive knowledge, “becoming familiar with them, of course, through trial and error, or maybe even at the manufacturer’s recommendation, you learn ways to bypass systems,” he said.

The case has quickly become a topic of debate for carnival operators. On the Facebook page Carnival News, some users jumped to the defense of Family Attractions Amusement Co., the ride’s owners, and Powers Great American Midways, which managed the midway. Others declared Tutterrow a scapegoat, asking what would motivate him to endanger dozens of riders.

A spokeswoman for Family Attractions has said that Tutterrow was paid a flat fee, with no financial incentive to keep the ride running when it wasn’t safe. Similarly, she said, Family Attractions received a set fee from the main midway contractor.

Standards of care

The Vortex disaster quickly spread across news media, receiving coverage from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and major television networks. Amateur observers picked up on the story, too, adding the story to the databases of ride accidents on websites such as RideAccidents.com.

Online comments poured in. Countless people declared that the new portable rides weren’t safe, or that they wouldn’t ride at carnivals again. In interviews, two ride operators cited the accident as an example of the pressure they face in a tough business.

At carnivals, “the motto is ‘Never lose money,’” said Taka James, who ran the kid-sized Quadzilla roller coaster at this year’s fair. She has spoken out in multiple interviews because her brother-in-law remains in serious condition after he was crushed by a falling ride at the end of the N.C. fair.

Wayne Pierce, a Maryland lawyer, sees it differently. In more than 15 years as an amusement industry specialist, he has seen ride owners offer more employee amenities, such as housing, while the industry in the mid-2000s adopted a rigorously tested set of design standards, he said.

“The game is changing. If you look at what the standard of care was, just in the carnival business, these guys have changed their business models dramatically,” he said. Mobile ride operators “are almost 100 percent classic small businesses, multigenerational. They are professional, and they’ve been around a long time.”

Pierce argues that although injuries are unwanted and unfortunate, they receive attention disproportionate to their frequency.

While he’s been watching, he said, between two and four people have died each year in connection with the amusement industry as a whole, and between eight and a dozen annually have suffered serious injuries.

Those numbers line up in part with a federal Consumer Product Safety Commission estimate that 4.4 people died on amusement rides annually between 1987 and 2002. The 2005 report estimates mobile amusement rides accounted for about 2,500 “non-occupational” injuries treated in emergency rooms, with no change in mobile-ride injuries from 1997 to 2004. The commission didn’t return a call for comment.

Even among those numbers, intentional tampering accusations are rare compared with alleged sins of omission, Pierce said.

“I have no hesitation in saying it is not a common issue,” he said. The best-known recent example perhaps was the death of a woman who was flung from an improperly secured ride in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Tennessee courts found that a manager had disabled a restraint-checking system and convicted him of reckless homicide.

That case, Pierce recalled, did not prompt any changes to rules or regulations, or any efforts to protect safety systems from unauthorized alterations.

“When you’re in this sort of professionalized, heavily regulated environment, it will become a much steeper hill to climb to justify even more efforts” to make the rides tamper-proof, he said.

Lawsuits to come?

It will be a long time before the Vortex disaster’s aftermath is obvious. The ride itself sits behind guard and fence on the fairgrounds, investigators returning to the scene frequently as the last remnants of the festivities disappear.

The Wake County Sheriff’s Office is picking carefully through its evidence. Investigators know that their criminal inquiry likely will be followed by extensive civil litigation, according to Richard Johnson, chief of operations for the office.

And for the families of those injured, even the basic questions of life after the tragedy may be unanswered. They’ve asked for privacy and have made no public comment, but three members of the same family – ages 29, 39 and 14 – remained hospitalized at WakeMed as of Friday.

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

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