RALEIGH, N.C. – Five people were injured, including two critically, on a carnival ride known for its wild twirls and flips at the North Carolina State Fair, and officials were trying to determine Friday exactly what caused the accident.
The accident happened after the "Vortex" started up again as riders were getting off late Thursday evening, officials said. The injured riders range in age from 14 to 39.
Among the possible causes for the accident that investigators will be reviewing is a safety switch that malfunctioned on the ride Monday, according to Tom Chambers, the chief of the ride inspection unit at the state Labor Department. The switch is supposed to keep the ride from operating unless the safety restraints designed to hold the riders in their seats are closed. The ride was temporarily idled as workers replaced the switch, Chambers said. It reopened Monday night after being tested.
Three of the injured remained hospitalized as of Friday afternoon. Two were reported to be in critical condition. Officials would not discuss the nature of their injuries or give their names, but confirmed a ride attendant was among those sent to the hospital. At the time of the accident, the attendant was helping people off while another worker was at the controls, Chambers said.
State agricultural commissioner Steve Troxler, whose agency runs the fair, said he remains confident in the safety of the rides and plans to let his own grandchild enjoy them this weekend. He stressed that the accident was "an isolated incident."
"Safety is something we take very, very seriously," Troxler said. "All of us are deeply shaken by this."
The Vortex is a large ride that spins, twirls and flips passengers upside down. Fair spokesman Brian Long said the machine would undergo inspection by the Labor Department, and that the Wake County Sheriff's Office would also conduct its own investigation and look for witnesses.
The Vortex was shut down Friday, blocked with steel barricades and yellow crime scene tape. Two sheriff's deputies stood guard nearby.
Long said the ride would remain closed for the duration of the fair, which ends Sunday.
A New York-based carnival company, Powers Great American Midways, was hired by the state to provide and operate rides for the fair. The company owns 54 of the rides and hired subcontractors to provide the rest, Les Powers, the company's owner, told The Associated Press on Friday.
The Vortex was among the subcontracted rides and Powers said he didn't know what had caused the accident.
"Nobody wants this to happen, and we're trying to find out why this did happen," Powers said. "Oh my God, we feel absolutely horrible for the families," he said. "I'm not used to this. This doesn't happen. I don't know how to react. I tried to sleep last night, but I couldn't. I just feel so horrible for them, about the whole thing. I wish I could turn the clock back. "
An accident involving a ride owned by a Powers subcontractor occurred in 2010 at a county fair in Maryland when a ride operator was struck in the head during a malfunction, Powers acknowledged. And in June 2012, a young boy was hospitalized after falling from a small roller coaster provided by Powers' company for a fair in Danbury, Conn.
Labor Department inspectors performed safety checks on all the rides before the fair opened, Chambers said. Ride operators are supposed to do three daily operational checks and record those in a log, he said. State inspectors then perform "spot checks" of the logs to confirm operators are complying with the rules.
Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison said Friday that his investigators are talking to witnesses and urged those with any video of the incident to step forward.
Caleb Norris told WNCN television of Raleigh that he heard a crashing sound just after getting off the Vortex. He turned around and saw two people lying face down. Witnesses made frantic calls to 911 to report that people had fallen off the ride, according to transcripts provided by the Wake County Sheriff's Office.
The incident appears to be the first serious ride-related accident at the North Carolina fair in years. In 2002, a ride operator at the fair was killed when he was struck by the ride while it was still in operation.
Associated Press writers Mitch Weiss and Skip Foreman in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.