As bills mount, NC State Fair ride victims' friends call for help

akenney@newsobserver.comJanuary 14, 2014 

The Gorham family in an undated holiday photo.

COURTESY OF KISHA GORHAM

— Kisha and Anthony Gorham couldn’t have expected the nightmare at the N.C. State Fair. They couldn’t have known that the Vortex ride would spin out of control, dumping the couple, their son and their niece on to a metal deck on Oct. 24. They couldn’t have avoided their life-changing injuries.

But they were prepared, they thought, for a disaster. They knew how to handle crises, having worked for years with people in need, and they’ve long had health insurance.

It wasn’t enough. Three months later, neither husband nor wife is ready to return to work, yet they face mounting insurance bills. Despite debilitating injuries, they still have to keep up with monthly premiums of hundreds of dollars, and they’ve turned to charity to keep pace.

“They have short-term disability (payments), but it doesn’t cover the cost of the medical insurance. That’s their biggest issue,” said Nakiesha Sprull, a close family friend. “She said the very system she has been working in for 22 years isn’t able to provide for her family.”

Give 2 The Gorhams, an online fundraiser set up after the disaster, has raised $8,500 from 217 supporters for the family’s care and expenses, but the demand is greater than that, according to Rahsaan Hunter, the biological father of the Gorhams’ son. Altogether, family friends are hoping to raise almost $12,000 more. The fundraiser can be found at http://bit.ly/fairfunds.

The Gorhams, of Wake Forest, were still adjusting to the birth of their youngest child at the time of the accident. Kisha Gorham, 40, had only recently returned to her job in social work with the state of North Carolina.

Now it’s unclear when she could go back to work, or when Anthony Gorham, 30, could return to his job at a nonprofit, Sprull said. Kisha Gorham has declined to specify where she and her husband work.

The family could eventually be compensated by potential lawsuits against the ride’s owner and operator, who are accused of intentionally disabling safety mechanisms in order to keep the ride running. Joshua Macaroni, the owner, and Timothy Tutterrow, the operator, both have been charged with three felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, stemming from the injuries to the Gorhams and their son.

But the criminal case could drag on for months, and the family’s finances are far from settled. The Gorhams need help now, Sprull said.

College roommates

Sprull has become the de facto spokeswoman for the Gorhams, who have shied from the spotlight in the wake of the ride malfunction. Once Kisha Gorham’s roommate at Fayetteville State University, Sprull was among the first to speak to the family as investigators and reporters scrambled to find out what had gone wrong with the Vortex.

Sprull and Gorham had connected by phone hours before the accident. They were accustomed to speaking every day.

“I spoke to Kisha when they were on their way to the fair. I had called to tell her something, and she was supposed to call me whenever she left that night,” said Sprull, an assistant middle school principal in metro Atlanta. She fell asleep that night with the television on, still waiting for her friend’s call.

She woke up at 5 a.m. to a news report about the accident. “Never did I imagine that it was somebody I knew,” Sprull said. But then she looked down at her phone, which listed four missed calls from Kisha Gorham since 3 a.m.

Then the phone started ringing. It was her friend, groggily explaining that there had been an accident.

“I said, ‘Please tell me you’ve been in a car accident and not this accident,’ ” Sprull recalled.

Since that morning, Sprull has spent weekend after weekend with the Gorhams, watching their slow healing. They suffered concussions and broken bones among other injuries, some with long-lasting effects, according to Sprull.

The Gorhams’ niece, Shykema Dempsey, 24, was the first to leave the hospital, only to return with complications. She has lost her job because of her extended absence, according to Sprull.

The couple’s son Justen Hunter, 14, left the hospital after two weeks and has returned to high school in Wake Forest. A month after the accident, Kisha Gorham was able to go home, Sprull said – but even as she recovers, she’s caring for her children and for her husband.

Anthony Gorham remains hospitalized at WakeMed. Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings reported last month that one of the fair-ride victims – apparently Anthony Gorham – remained comatose.

Family protective of privacy

The Gorhams, who were married about a year ago, remain protective of their privacy. Kisha Gorham declined to give exact details about her family’s financial situation, such as the name of their insurance provider, saying the question was too personal, according to Sprull. In fact, the family only allowed Sprull to speak because of intense media interest in the Give 2 The Gorhams fundraiser, which was organized by Justen Hunter’s father.

While the aftermath of the Vortex accident plays out, including the trials of the ride’s operator and owner, the Gorham family is looking back on a year that brought both the life of a new child and a terrifying brush with death.

“Another sleepless night. I’m lying here thankful to hear my husband breathing. I cannot tell you just how much the little things mean these days,” read a post on the fundraiser, signed by Kisha Gorham. “As the year comes to an end one tends to reflect on days gone by. Although 2013 can surely go on record as being one of the worst years of my life, I am VERY grateful to have survived.”

It’s unclear what the coming year will bring, Sprull said.

“I don’t know when they can go back to work. I don’t even know when they’ll be physically ready, much less mentally ready,” she said. “I do know, financially, it is taking a toll – and I’m thinking that financially it’s going to take a toll for a little while.”

Even so, Kisha Gorham is hopeful and spiritual, according to her longtime confidante.

“She knows he's going to get better. She knows things are going to get better. She’s not a person who cries about it,” Sprull said. “She’s not a person who’s saying, ‘Why me?’ 

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

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