One person was killed and seven injured Wednesday after an amusement ride malfunctioned on opening day of the Ohio State Fair, one of the largest state fairs in the country.
Battalion Chief Steve Martin, a spokesman for the Columbus Fire Division, said the victims were hurled from the Fire Ball ride at 7:20 p.m. local time. One man was killed on impact, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
Ohio Governor John Kasich said at a news conference Wednesday night that “This is the worst tragedy in the history of the fair.” Kasich called for a full investigation and ordered all rides shut down until safety inspections could be made, he said.
“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,” he said.
Three of the injured were taken to OhioHealth Grant Medical Center. Two were later released with one patient in critical condition, a hospital spokesman said.
Another four were brought to Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, where Dr. David Evans told reporters that “multiple passengers were ejected at high speed, at high energy more than 20 feet or more.”
He said four patients were in intensive care, one of whom was in surgery. The victims vary in ages from teenagers to at least one in their 60s.
“We will get to the bottom of this. There will be complete transparency,” Kasich added.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also issued a statement, saying he and his wife send their “deepest sympathies to all those who were impacted by the accident.”
The swinging Fire Ball pivots and swirls as high as 40 feet at 13 revolutions a minute, according to specifications from Amusements of America, the carnival operator that deployed a fleet of rides to the fair.
Videos circulating online and on local news stations show a sense of chaos as the incident unraveled. In one video, the six gondolas with four seats each rocketed from the top of a parabolic arc. At least two of the gondolas appear to smash into a metal structural support beam, as one drops away. One person appears to have been launched into the air as the video ends in screams from onlookers.
Amusements of America did not return a call for comment. Organizers of the Ohio State Fair did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Travis and Mitch Taylor, 18-year-old cousins from a town outside Columbus, said they rode the Fire Ball Wednesday night just before the fatal incident. They contemplated climbing back on but instead opted for food, backpedaling away from the ride as they watched those who boarded behind them climb into the air.
“We just watched the people get scared,” Travis Taylor told The Washington Post.
The ride swung high to the right and back to the left, then suddenly people were free-falling.
They soon realized that an entire row of fairgoers had detached from the Fire Ball and hit the ground. Each row is color-coordinated, the cousins said, and it was the orange row that fell – the same row that they had been seated in only moments before.
“It very well could have been us,” Travis Taylor said.
Onlookers screamed and cried, the cousins said, and almost immediately police and EMS began blocking off the crowd from those who were injured.
“Everyone was just scared as heck,” Mitch Taylor said. “We were shaking.”
The cousins weren’t sure how long the Fire Ball had been operating at the Ohio State Fair, but they said it had been there for the eight years they had been attending. It was one of their favorites, they said.
“You see those videos of a roller coaster malfunctioning,” Travis Taylor said, “but you never think it can actually happen.”
Last year, more than 900,000 people attended the fair, according to Cleveland.com.
The Ohio Highway Patrol will be the lead investigators.
Michael Vartorella, a ride inspector with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said at the news conference his team oversees 4,300 pieces of equipment in the state, which are carefully inspected to ensure working condition of electrical systems, hydraulics and structural integrity. The Fire Ball was inspected three or four times before the fair began, he said.
Vartorella 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 serious, and when we have an accident like this . . . it hits us really hard.”
Kasich said he will be back at the fair Thursday morning, with plans to continue the fair as scheduled. At least four rides did not operate Wednesday out of safety concerns, and rides will reopen after they are reinspected, Ohio Department of Agriculture official David Daniels said at the conference.
The governor sought to downplay concerns of fair guests, some of whom have bought season passes, who may think twice before returning to the fair that runs until August 6.
“We’ll move on but it doesn’t mean we don’t grieve for what happened,” Kasich said.
“I’ll be at the fair,” he said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Alex Horton, Katie Mettler