RALEIGH — In the aftermath of the Vortex accident at the N.C. State Fair, courtroom proceedings and media accounts outlined the broad strokes of a fair ride gone wrong. Meanwhile, the injured and their rescuers came together to heal quietly.
Two of the day’s unsung heroes stepped into public view earlier this month when Conelle Farrar, a firefighter in Morrisville, and David Robie Jr., a Wakefield High School student, were honored by the Morrisville Fire Department.
Farrar, of Raleigh, received one of his department’s highest awards, while Robie, who charged into the scene alongside Farrar, is the first recipient of department’s Robie Award, named in his honor.
Both are credited with risking their lives to save others – and both have worn the honor quietly, largely in deference to the people whose lives they may have saved.
Farrar, 38, was the first to take the stage at the Morrisville department’s annual awards banquet on Jan. 11.
The firefighter was off duty on Oct. 24, the day of the accident. He and a friend had just stepped off the ride when it spun back into action, flinging the remaining riders off from heights up to 20 feet or more. Farrar’s instincts had him pulling people from the scene even as the spinning machinery lowered toward them.
Three months later, before a crowd of about 175 people, Farrar accepted the department’s Medal of Honor Ribbon. Then he called a surprised young man to the stage.
Like Farrar, David Robie Jr., now 16, was only steps from the disaster.
Robie and his sister, Ashley Lauren Robie, 18, came upon the Vortex at the fair’s midway on that Thursday night while their parents were exploring the fair buildings.
The Vortex is a huge machine, its two arms working in stomach-churning circles, pods of seats spinning and flipping through the air. Just before Ashley Lauren would have boarded, the siblings saw the machine grind back into action.
“We have to help,” Robie, then 15, told his sister, as recounted by Robie’s father, David Robie. David Robie Jr. declined to be interviewed; the accident was a very troubling sight for the teenager and his sister, his father said.
“As Ashley Lauren called 911, Dave ducked and disappeared under the ride while it was operating out of control,” Robie’s father wrote in an email.
In the next minute, while Farrar pulled people from harm’s way and emergency responders sprinted for the scene, young Robie found the person most badly injured in the disaster.
‘It was scary’
Anthony Gorham lay at the back of the ride, far into the surreal “hostile environment” described by Farrar.
“It was scary,” said Farrar, who has been a firefighter for three years after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I didn’t understand what was going on, and why the machine was still moving.”
Even in that chaos, David Robie Jr. stuck closely to the emergency training he’d received in a sports medicine class.
“He took the steps to make sure he had a pulse, to make sure he was breathing, and that he didn’t have an obstruction,” Robie’s father said in a phone interview.
Perhaps most importantly, Robie kept Gorham immobile, as required by the nature of his injuries.
“When someone came up and they wanted to drag (Anthony Gorham) to get out of the way, he said ‘No, we’re not moving him at all,’ ” Robie’s father said.
Close bonds formed
The Robie family has since heard from emergency responders that Robie’s actions may have saved Anthony Gorham’s life. Gorham’s family and close friends have requested privacy regarding the extent of his injuries, but they have said that he faces a long recovery.
In all, four members of Anthony Gorham’s family were injured alongside him. Both he and his wife, Kisha, are unable to return to work yet and are having trouble paying insurance premiums.
The Gorhams, of Wake Forest, have formed a close bond with the Robies and Conelle Farrar since the accident.
It was the Gorhams, during Thanksgiving dinner, who told Farrar about David Robie Jr. The two hadn’t met at the scene, but they were introduced later.
Eventually, Farrar pushed the Morrisville Fire Department to honor his young friend.
“I wanted to do something that I thought would really help him out, help boost him back up,” he said, referring to the horror of the disaster, “and let him know that he had done a great job. A human being is living to this day because of his actions.”
The same can be said of Farrar, and the rest of the emergency responders who came to the scene.
“It’s a special calling,” said Morrisville Fire Chief Todd Wright. “It’s a true honor to even work with people like Conelle.”
Farrar, who drove trucks for Lowe’s for years before joining the department, plans to stick with the job for life. David Robie Jr. also wants to help people for a living, his father said.
His actions already have made a mark. The Morrisville Fire Department plans to give the Robie Award for heroic actions in the years to come.
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC