PORTLAND, Ore. – A 9-year-old Medford boy looking to build his bravery on a high-speed, turbulent thrill ride, instead had his courage tested by a trip to the emergency room when a piece of metal flew off the apparatus, hitting him in the face.
The ‘Zipper’ was supposed to be the last ride of the day for Brendan Hasse, who was attending the Jackson County Fair in Medford on July 18th with his family. But then: “I heard a real funny screech of metal,” said Brendan’s mom, Lynette Hasse. “I saw him jump and turn to us and start running and blood was pouring out of his face.”
Brendan went to the hospital with shards of metal still in his cheek. A photo snapped in the emergency room shows the still open wound where the object hit him, about an inch below his right eye.
“I was trying to smile, but I’d had a really, really rough day,” Brendan explained, thinking back to when the picture was taken. “If it had gone a little bit more, it could have taken my eye out. But Jesus is watching me.”
So how do you know if the rides are safe when the fair comes to your town? Someone is watching over them, right? As it turns out, the answer is not that cut and dry. After examining hundreds of state documents, the KATU Problem Solvers found startling gaps in Oregon’s laws regulating thrill rides.
In Oregon, although the state issues the permits, a state employee doesn’t conduct the inspection. Instead, the insurance companies for the ride operators hire an inspector to look over each ride. Oregon has no standards for the ride inspectors, unlike some states that require training and certification.
Whereas some states require inspections every time a ride is set up, Oregon requires an inspection just once a year.
And those inspection reports may tell you very little about the safety of the rides, depending on who did the inspection. The Problem Solvers’ analysis of the last three years of inspection records turned in by the major thrill ride operators in Oregon shows some inspectors find problems with about one out of every three rides.
But some never write up any problems at all. One inspector found zero problems in all 163 rides he inspected.
Does that mean those rides had no problems? That inspector not necessarily; there may have been breakdowns. But he waits until they get fixed before turning in the paper work – the forms never show whether the ride had any major problems or pattern of failures. That makes the inspection more of an application for a state permit, showing only that the ride is ready to go.
The state of ride inspections in Oregon upsets Brandon’s mother.
“It’s not okay to wait for someone to be maimed or die for them to decide they’re going to teach somebody how to be an inspector,” Lynette Hasse said.
The Oregon department running the amusement ride program did not want to wait either. Oregon's Department of Consumer and Business Services tried to fix the problem in 2011, telling lawmakers the current program gives the public the impression the state is checking ride safety, but it's not.
“We don’t verify the insurance info we've received. We don’t go out and look at devices at all,” Patrick Allen, director of DCBS, told the House Committee on Business and Labor during a public hearing on the proposed changes.
Allen said the state does not spot-check rides to see if they have the proper paperwork and are safe.
But lawmakers chose not to approve the changes. Part of their decision was because the price tag was too high given the fragile economic climate at the time; the bill would have tripled permit fees.
Nevertheless, the bill did have some industry support.
Ron Burback is president of Portland-based Funtastic Rides, the company that runs the Zipper ride that hurt Brendan. Burback said he was not able to talk about the accident, but he can talk about Oregon's amusement ride program.
“I think we could be doing better, sharpen things up,” Burback said.
He was serving as president of the Oregon Carnival Guild when the changes came up for consideration in 2011 and they had his support. Among the improvements: mandatory inspector training, a quality control plan for all rides, spot ride inspections and a system to keep better track of maintenance records.
“When you service a piece of equipment, it’s a document of what you do,” Burback explained. “That goes into a library file for us so we can backtrack and know what work was done.”
Burback says his company already does that, inspecting rides not only once a year, but each time they’re set up and then again every morning before the fair opens, documenting the issues. He wants every ride operator to do the same.
“So the public knows. That’s what it’s there for,” he said. “They should be able to know. They need to know.”
Funtastic offered Brendan and his family the chance to come back to the fair for free. Brendan accepted and finally rode the Zipper.
For his mother, however, it is not over.
“Just because there hasn’t been a death, doesn’t mean you don’t work on improving your inspections,” Lynette Hasse said.
Investigators found that a loose piece of equipment fell off and hit Brendan. According to the state, the ride crew was doing routine maintenance and forgot to tighten all 16 fasteners on the ride.
The state says the ride is now safe. It is scheduled to be at the Oregon State Fair and the Clackamas County Fair next month.
Many of the changes proposed for Oregon are already in effect in Washington. Additionally, the state’s Department of Labor and Industries offers this amusement rides safety checklist for consumers:
For all rides:
- Check for a current state decal on the ride, meaning it's been inspected and approved.
- Observe how the ride is operated:
- Is the operator taking care to ensure that passengers are appropriately protected?
- Is the operator paying close attention when the ride is in motion?
- Is the operator observing restrictions about rider size?
For inflatable rides:
- Is the operator strictly limiting the number of people on the ride at one time?
- Does the inflatable ride appear to be overloaded or unstable?
- Does the ride appear to be securely anchored?
- Could the blower inflating the ride accidentally be unplugged, collapsing and possibly injuring the riders?
The Department of Labor and Industries also has a list of frequently asked questions on their website.
More information about Oregon’s ride regulation and program is also posted online. You can request information about individual ride operators by contacting the Building Codes Division.
The KATU Problem Solvers have created this interactive map, matching ride operators to major fairs and carnivals in Oregon this summer. You can browse the map below:
According to Saferparks.org, New Jersey has the highest number of thrill ride accidents, followed by California then Texas. The amusement ride watchdog website keeps track of thrill ride accident reports where available.
The type of ride with the most accidents? Water slides, followed by roller coasters, flume rides, bumper cars and carousels. The information on the website can be grouped by ride type, age group or location.