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Teen killed in ‘worst tragedy in history of fair'

By Jim Woods • Updated Jul 27, 2017 at 8:03 PM

An 18-year-old man died and seven others were injured when an amusement ride at the Ohio State Fair broke apart Wednesday evening on the fair's opening day.

Battalion Chief Steve Martin, a spokesman for the Columbus Fire Division, said some of the victims were thrown from the Fire Ball ride during the incident at about 7:20 p.m.

One man was thrown high into the air and landed on the ground about 50 feet from the ride, Martin said. He was killed on impact.

Three other people — including another person seen flying from the ride — were in critical condition and four more were in stable condition, authorities said Wednesday night.

Three of the injured were taken to OhioHealth Grant Medical Center; the other four to Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center.

Gov. John Kasich said at a press conference Wednesday night that it's hard to imagine a family going to the Ohio State Fair "and then those calls come that there was a terrible tragedy, and somebody you love was involved."

He called it the ‘worst tragedy in the history of the fair.’

Kasich ordered the other 71 rides at the fair shut down around 9 p.m., more than an hour after the incident. They will be re-inspected Thursday before being reopened, though a handful of rides near the Fire Ball will likely remain closed while the investigation continues. The state fair will open for all other activities as scheduled Thursday.

A man who was on the grandstand at the time of the incident told The Dispatch he heard a loud sound of metal cracking then looked and saw two men being thrown off the ride, one of them from up high.

The Fire Ball, manufactured by KMG, is billed as an "aggressive thrill" ride that swings riders like a pendulum from side to side, reaching 40 feet above the ground while spinning riders at 13 revolutions per minute, according to ride-enthusiast websites. The ride holds 24 passengers in four-seat sections at the end of six spoke arms.

In a video circulating on social media, it appears that an entire row of seats snapped off one of the spoke arms and fell to the ground as the ride began to swing upward. Some riders plunged to the ground with the seat section while at least two people were sent flying into the air, the video shows.

Officials said fair staff members worked to "offload" people from the Fire Ball and other rides as quickly as possible, but they said it took some time to do that.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting the rides at the fair. Director David Daniels said the agency will investigate what occurred.

Michael Vartorella, chief inspector of amusement ride safety for the Agriculture Department, said the Fire Ball was inspected three or four times before the fair started.

He insisted that workers did not rush through inspections, though they worked long nights because of heavy rain and some flooding during the week leading up to the fair.

"We take this job very serious, and when we have an accident like this ... it hits us really hard," he said.

Vartorella said the ride is what is called a "spectacular piece," meaning it is brought in on multiple trucks and bolted together. The ride is inspected as it's assembled and again once it is up to make sure it is level and parts, such as electrical components and hydraulics, are working properly.

He said there were no red flags on this ride. The ride was approved for operation Wednesday; four rides were not allowed to operate for the fair's opening day Wednesday.

But Vartorella also said there are "no guarantees" because there could be mechanical or structural failures that can't be seen by the human eye.

Wednesday was opening day for the 164th state fair, one of the nation's largest, which attracts several hundred thousand visitors and runs through Aug. 6.

Vartorella said inspectors look at 4,300 pieces of equipment in Ohio at everything from fairs to water parks.

He said inspectors look for problems with structure, operations and mechanical function to make sure the rides work properly and safely.

Officials said inspectors will examine the rides Thursday and conclude "as soon as possible." The rides will reopen once inspectors are sure they're safe.

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Fairgoers stunned by death, injuries on Fire Ball at State Fair

Katherine Stuckey tried nearly all the big amusement park rides at the Ohio State Fair on its opening day Wednesday — including the Fire Ball.

She said she'd had no inkling that anything was wrong.

Hours later, the Fire Ball ride broke apart. One person died and seven people were injured, three critically. Stuckey couldn't help but worry about what could have happened.

"If it had been at a slightly different time ...," she said, her voice trailing off.

Stuckey, 28, of Grove City, was one of many visitors to the state fair who were shaken by Wednesday night's events.

Michelle Carter, 35, of Heath, was at the fair with two children who rode the Fire Ball. She said her stomach dropped when she saw video of the accident that had been circulating on social media. She said her thoughts went out to the victims' parents.

Susie and Mike Buchanan of Plain City, who have gone to the fair for years, were extremely saddened when they learned what had happened while they were elsewhere at the fair.

"I feel really sorry for the people involved," Mrs. Buchanan, 69, said. "This is a real tragedy."

Tammy and Jeff Scott of Delaware, who entered the fairgrounds through the 11th Street gate, where the Fire Ball was located, said people at the fair were watching video of the accident on social media within an hour or so of the incident.

"I couldn't imagine if that was one of my kids," she said of the video's rapid circulation.

Another fairgoer said she was upset by some fairgoers who complained when they were told the rides were being shut down for the night and refunds were being issued. "Some of these people need to get their priorities straight," she said, declining to give her name.

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Dispatch Reporter Megan Henry and Dispatch photographer Barbara J. Perenic contributed to this story.

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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