NC Labor Department issues fines of $114,200 in Vortex accident

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2014 

— The state Labor Department has levied $114,200 in fines for safety violations blamed for an Oct. 24 accident at the N.C. State Fair, where five people were hurt when a malfunctioning thrill ride flung fairgoers into the air.

In a 22-page investigation report issued Wednesday, the Labor Department described new details in the case of the Vortex ride. The department contends that the ride owner and an employee used electrical wires on two separate dates to override safety features that were supposed to prevent the Vortex from moving unless riders were secured in their seats.

Joshua Macaroni of Valdosta, Ga., the ride owner, installed the first “jumper wire” that bypassed the safety feature on Oct. 17, the opening day of the fair, the report said. The ride had stopped working, and it began running again after Macaroni installed the jumper wire, the report said.

Tim Tutterrow of Quitman, Ga., who was operating the ride on Oct. 24, told Labor Department investigators that he installed a second jumper wire on Oct. 21. He said Macaroni told him to leave both jumpers in place.

The Vortex is a thrill ride that spins and flips up to 32 riders – each of them secured with shoulder harnesses and lap bars. At 9:21 p.m. on Oct. 24, the Vortex had stopped moving and the safety restraints had been opened to let riders climb out of their seats. Then it started moving again, throwing riders into the air and onto the ground.

Tutterrow “said he panicked and started turning off all the controls,” according to the report, but never activated an emergency device that would cut off power and stop the Vortex. Investigators confirmed that night that the emergency stop switch had not been activated.

A permanent injury

Four members of a Durham family were hurt: Kisha and Anthony Gorham; their son Justen Hunter; and a niece, Shykema Dempsey. A ride operator identified in the Labor Department report as Brian Shelters received minor injuries. The Gorhams’ attorney has said that Anthony Gorham suffered the worst injuries, including permanent damage to his brain, neck and spinal cord.

The Labor Department issued fines Wednesday to Family Attractions Amusement LLC, of Valdosta, Ga., the registered operator of the Vortex, and Macaroni, 32, whose parents own Family Attractions. They were fined $56,000 apiece, each for two alleged willful violations of the state Occupational Safety and Health Act.

In addition, the department fined Family Attractions $900; Macaroni $600; Tutterrow $350; and ride operator Omar Toranzo $350, for violations of the state Amusement Device Safety Act.

Family Attractions and the three men have 15 days to pay the penalties or to contest them, the Labor Department said.

Civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions also are underway in the Vortex case. Tutterrow and Macaroni face multiple charges in Wake County of felony assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. Both men are free on bail.

The Vortex ride spins around as an arm flips riders upward toward the sky, spinning faster as the riders are turned upside down at the highest point of elevation. The Vortex had not been featured at the N.C. State Fair before 2013, although a different ride also called the Vortex has been at the fair for several years.

The investigation report says two Labor Department safety inspectors stayed with Macaroni and other employees for most of the day Oct. 16 and the following morning while they unloaded the Vortex from three trailers and assembled the ride. On the inspectors’ instructions, a bolt was shortened so nobody would trip over it, and a welder was summoned to repair a crack. An electrical relay apparently had come loose during shipment, and they asked Macaroni to fix it.

During a test run Oct. 17, the Vortex was not spinning properly. Macaroni told an inspector, “It was working until you made me fix it [the relay],” the Labor Department report said. Macaroni spent about 10 minutes working with a screwdriver in the electrical control cabinet, without the inspectors watching him.

“The ride inspector did not assist in determining why the passenger carrier was not spinning, as diagnosing operational issues is outside the inspector’s scope of duties,” the Labor Department report said.

That’s when Macaroni bypassed the safety device so the Vortex would start spinning again, the report said.

“Tutterrow stated that he was on the deck next to Josh and was told not to allow anyone to see what was occurring,” the report said. “Tutterrow stated that a jumper was added to allow the ride to spin.”

The Vortex suffered operational problems a few days later. The lap bar release button stopped working. Tutterrow installed a second jumper wire, and the ride began running again. Macaroni told Tutterrow on Oct. 22 and Oct. 23 to continue operating the ride with both jumpers in place, the report said.

Allegation denied

An attorney for Macaroni denied that Macaroni had installed a jumper wire or that he had told Tutterrow to do so, the Labor Department report said.

Tutterrow’s attorney, Roger W. Smith Jr. of Raleigh, told The News and Observer the report shows that Tutterrow “has tried to cooperate with all phases of this investigation.”

The four injured Durham residents filed a lawsuit in Durham County this month seeking $150 million in damages from Family Attractions Amusement, Macaroni, Tutterrow and Powers Great American Midways, which managed the midway rides at the N.C. State Fair.

Family Attractions provided the Vortex as a subcontractor for Powers Great American Midways, according to court documents. Family Attractions officials commented on the case during the weeks following the accident and said Tutterrow was a salaried employee. But in recent weeks, Family Attractions has contended that the company did not own the Vortex and did not employ its operators.

The Labor Department report addresses the company’s claim by citing numerous documents that linked Family Attractions to the Vortex when the ride was featured at the N.C. State Fair and previously at fairs in Franklin and in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Alabama.

“While Family Attractions Amusement denies any ownership or control of the ride, it leased the ride from Joshua Macaroni and exercised control over the ride and individuals working on the ride and had knowledge of the problems with the ride through its representatives Joshua Macaroni and Tim Tutterrow,” the report concludes.

Family Attractions will contest the fine, said its attorney, Gregory Brown of Raleigh.

“Plainly and simply, my clients were not in North Carolina at the time, and they were not employing any of these individuals at the time,” Brown said.

Speaking for the Gorham family, Durham attorney Mike Jones praised the Labor Department.

“I think they’re to be commended for standing up and saying, ‘You had a violation here, and we’re not going to let you get away with that,’ ” Jones said.

The Vortex was made in 1997 by a firm called Mel Park of Melara, Italy. An Italian electrical engineer who helped construct the Vortex came to Raleigh to help deputies and safety inspectors with their investigation of the accident.

Using test dummies as substitutes for human riders, the investigators tested the Vortex. With the lap bars and shoulder harnesses open, the ride stayed locked in place and the dummies remained in their seats.

Then they attached jumper wires to the controls, overriding the safety features.

“The device was again started and operated one ride cycle,” the Labor Department report said. “With ... all restraints open, the test dummies were ejected from the device as the device rotated and inverted.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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