State fair officials work to reassure visitors about safety

COLUMBUS — State officials and amusement industry executives worked to reassure visitors Monday that the 2018 Ohio State Fair will be safe a year after a catastrophic ride failure left an 18-year-old dead and seven others injured.

The effort came ahead of today’s opening day, when thousands of adults and children will begin returning to the fairgrounds where Tyler Jarrell was killed when the Fire Ball ride broke apart.

“We continue to have the utmost confidence in the skills and capabilities of our inspectors to carry out the statutory duties that they’re required to,” said Ohio Agriculture Director David Daniels. He said the 2017 accident was a tragic mechanical error but that Ohio’s inspection program remains one of the best in the nation.

Robert Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, which represents the amusement ride industry, said the accident has prompted a strong industry response across the nation and world.

“When you come to a state fair like this, you want a diverse variety of rides for all the demographics, not only children but for adults and teens,” Johnson said. “So when you have (an accident involving) a spectacular ride, or a super spectacular ride like that one, it’s a wake-up call. It’s our 9/11 experience, unfortunately.”

The state never concluded why the Fire Ball’s support beams became so corroded on the inside resulting in its ultimate failure. The ride’s manufacturer, Netherlands-based KMG, issued its findings nine days after the malfunction: “Excessive corrosion on the interior of the gondola support beam dangerously reduced the beam’s wall thickness over the years. This finally led to a catastrophic failure of the ride during operation.”

The Columbus Dispatch reported the company had been put on notice in 2012 about the potential rusting issue. The company, which did not return calls for comment, had had set a new required thickness of 3.8mm, down from 6mm, on steel support beams required to operate the ride, according to a letter from KGM to ride operators North American Midway Entertainment in Brantford, Ontario, that was obtained by the newspaper.

Video of the July 26, 2017, Fire Ball accident showed gondolas holding multiple riders shearing apart during operation, ejecting riders in mid-swing and plunging them to the ground. Jarrell died of blunt force trauma injuries after being tossed 50 feet into the air when the ride broke apart.

Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich has urged the Agriculture Department “to seek additional best practices and new ways we can improve safety,” said spokesman Jon Keeling. However, a tougher inspection law requiring changes to the current system has languished in the Legislature.

“Tyler’s Law,” named for Jarrell, is supported by survivors of the ride collapse. It would require the Agriculture Department to hire a “reasonable and adequate” number of inspectors, preferably mechanical engineers; require ride owners to maintain inspection records; and require Ohio to employ nationally recognized inspection standards.

Jarrell’s mother, Amber Duffield, said she’s crushed that legislators have not acted after a year.

“I’m not sure I have words for that — other than the trust is broken,” she told The Dispatch. She advised, “Simply see that there is something wrong and take action and make it right. I mean, that doesn’t take a lot, or a genius to say, ‘Do we really want that to happen again? Do we really need this to happen again?'”

Ohio also still employs eight full-time inspectors, the same number as last year, for 3,700 rides statewide. But Daniels said they will do more this year, including daily spot-checks and supplemental inspections. Several ride manufacturers are providing more information about detecting corrosion, although the department can’t say what percentage of rides are covered by new safety bulletins calling for rust inspections.

New Jersey-based Amusements of America also remains the ride vendor at this year’s fair. However, the company has severed ties with KGM in Ohio and across all of its events, and is conducting its own independent inspections of rides and ongoing investigation, said spokeswoman Jill Walls. The Fire Ball will not be at this year’s fair.

“There’s no faith in that relationship,” said spokeswoman Jill Walls. “There’s no faith in that company. We will not be doing business with that company gain.”

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