When Travis and Mitch Taylor climbed out of their seats on the Ohio State Fair’s Fire Ball ride on Wednesday evening, the 18-year-old cousins thought about taking another spin.
The Fire Ball, an “aggressive thrill” carnival ride that swoops like a pendulum and swings in a circle, had been their favourite ride for eight years. But Travis had just come from work and was hungry, so he suggested they first get some food.
“And thank God he did,” Mitch said, “because that’s what saved us.”
Just moments later, the cousins watched with horror as their beloved Fire Ball turned into a lethal machine, killing one man and injuring seven others.
Ohio governor John Kasich later described it as “the worst tragedy in the history of the fair”.
As they walked towards a food stall, the Taylor boys saw the gondola wheel, made of six rows arranged in an inward-facing circle, swing high to the right and back to the left, just as it had when they rode. Then there was a screech and screams and suddenly people were falling. Seat belts failed at least two riders, who were thrown into the air, and an entire row of the gondola wheel broke away and plummeted towards the concrete.
The cousins shook with fear and said they thought: “What the hell just happened?”
Shocked onlookers screamed and cried, Mitch Taylor said, and almost immediately police began blocking off the crowd from those who had been ejected.
Three of the injured were taken to hospital. By late Wednesday, two had been released but one patient remained in critical condition. Another three were brought to Ohio State University’s Medical Centre, where Dr David Evans told reporters that “multiple passengers were ejected at high speed, at high energy more than 20 feet [6 metres] or more”.
The centre said that one of the patients was in serious condition and two were in critical condition. The victims vary in age, from teenagers to at least one in their 60s.
At a news conference Wednesday night, Kasich called for a full investigation and ordered all rides at the fair to be shut down until safety inspections could be made.
“We will get to the bottom of this,” he said. “There will be complete transparency.”
Last year, more than 900,000 people attended the fair, which is one of the largest in the US.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine you have family that goes to a state fair and those calls come, that there was a terrible accident, a terrible tragedy, and someone you love is involved,” Kasich said.
Senator Rob Portman also issued a statement, saying he and his wife send their “deepest sympathies to all those who were impacted by the accident.”
Amusements of America, the carnival operator that deployed a fleet of rides to the Ohio State Fair, did not return a request for comment, nor did organisers of the fair.
The fair’s Twitter account later said: “Our hearts are heavy for the families of those involved in last night’s tragic accident.”
The fatal Fire Ball malfunction prompted California State Fair organisers on the other side of the US to shut down the attraction to its guests, even though it had not been flagged for safety issues.
“As far as I’m concerned, unless the factory calls us and says it can run, it’s down,” said Barry Schaible, an inspector hired by the state of California.
Hong Kong’s Ocean Park ride The Flash, which looks similar, is billed as “a thrill only for most hardcore visitors”. Ocean Park told Young Post today that the ride remains open. The Flash may look similar to the Fire Ball, but the design and structure differ. It said the ride is inspected at the beginning and end of each day.
Safety checks were not rushed
The Fire Ball debuted in 2002. It pivots and swirls as high as 12 metres at 13 revolutions a minute.
Michael Vartorella, a ride inspector with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said that his team oversees 4,300 pieces of equipment in the state, which are carefully inspected to ensure the working condition of electrical systems and hydraulics. The Fire Ball was inspected three or four times before the fair began, he said.
Vartorella insisted that inspectors did not rush their safety checks. He became emotional as he described the stakes of the safety of those rides.
“My grandchildren ride this equipment,” he said. “We take this job very seriously, and when we have an accident like this... it hits us really hard.”
The Fire Ball malfunction was caught on video and widely circulated on social media and local news stations on Wednesday night. One shows the six rows that form the gondola wheel – each with four seats – rocketing from side to side. As it swoops down and over the ride’s platform, at least two of the rows appear to strike a metal beam. A loud screech can be heard as one row snaps off.
Two people were launched into the air, and one man landed on the ground about 15 metres from the ride, firefighter Steve Martin said. He was killed on impact.
Travis Taylor echoed the sentiment of many fairgoers. “It very well could have been us,” he said. “You see those videos of a roller coaster malfunctioning, but you never think it can actually happen.”
Kasich shut down all 71 rides after the Fire Ball incident but most will open again once they are inspected, officials said.
The governor tried to reassure guests, some of whom may think twice before returning to the fair. “We’ll move on but it doesn’t mean we don’t grieve for what happened,” he said.
“I’ll be at the fair,” he added.
But the Taylor cousins didn’t share the governor’s confidence.
“We could not think of going on any rides after we saw that,” Mitch said. “I might go back for the food, but I won’t be riding any rides.”