The county fair season is in full swing in Tennessee, with 28 county fairs scheduled for the month of August.
The News 4 I-Team found that while state regulators are working to upgrade their safety inspection program for fair rides, some say there are systemic problems that need to be addressed.
Ride safety is top of mind after a ride at the Ohio State Fair malfunctioned in July, killing an 18-year-old who had just enlisted in the Marines. Seven people were injured.
The ride that came apart was known as the Fireball. It has since been banned in Tennessee and several other states.
The Fireball has been pulled from the Williamson County Fair, which opens Aug. 4.
The week before the Williamson County Fair, the I-Team watched how rides are inspected.
We watched as John Pierce climbed to the top of the inside of a ride called “The Flying Circus.” Pierce is a private consultant hired to verify that all the carnival rides at the Williamson County Fair are safe. He showed our cameras what kinds of things he looks for.
"I'm looking for fatigue or open to the surface cracking," Pierce said.
"No broken wires on this wire rope," he added.
Amusement park attractions injure more people than you might realize: 30,900 people last year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Tennessee has a division that oversees amusement rides. It expanded last year but it's still tiny, with just five employees, none of whom are yet qualified to inspect rides.
Tennessee has no plans right now to hire ride inspectors, according to the spokesman for the regulatory agency that is charged with regulating amusement devices.
"The funding just isn't there for the state to have its own inspectors," said Chris Cannon, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Instead, the ride’s owners are required to hire their own independent inspectors to do that work.
At the Williamson County Fair, that oversight is Pierce's job. Pierce audits the daily inspections that are done by a fair operator’s employees.
Drew Expositions provides the rides for the Williamson County Fair. Jimmy Drew, a second-generation owner, said his company “throws money at safety” and he has a good record as a result.
"When something needs money to buy a new part, or this or that, we do it," Drew said.
"The people who care mostly about safety is us. Because one accident can put a company out of business," Drew added.
But are Tennessee's laws strong enough to protect people from companies whose safety standards aren't so strict?
The state had three serious accidents in just one month in 2016.
One of them was in Greeneville, TN, on Aug. 9.
The gondola of a Ferris wheel dumped out its passengers. Three young girls, two of them sisters, fell about four stories to the ground.
"We watched them tumble out, one by one," said Kimberly Reynolds, the mother of two girls who were hurt.
The youngest daughter who was injured is 6-year-old Briley Reynolds. She suffered a traumatic brain injury, which an attorney for the family said continues to affect her.
The family sued the company that provided the rides, Family Attractions Amusement.
The lawyer for the Reynolds family is Bruce Fox. He said what he's learned about the industry has him concerned.
"Well, I wouldn't let my children ride on one, unless I had personally done the inspection," Fox said.
An investigative report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said equipment failure caused the Ferris wheel accident.
The bottom cover plate became loose due to worn rivets. That allowed the plate to drop down enough to catch on the structure of the wheel.
The government report noted that the manufacturer called for overhauling the ride after 10 years of use, but that was never done.
The Ferris wheel had not been inspected by an independent third-party in Tennessee.
Tennessee law requires rides to be inspected once a year, but inspections done in other states count, even though rides are often torn down, moved, and set up over and over again without being re-inspected by a third party.
"That inspection can take place anywhere in the nation. As long as it was done within three months of applying for the state of Tennessee permit," Cannon said.
The Greeneville Ferris wheel passed inspection in Indiana in June, then it was moved to seven different cities before operating in Greeneville in August.
Fox, the Reynolds family’s lawyer, said while researching fair ride accidents, he uncovered what he considers systemic problems: untrained, unsupervised ride operators, a lack of oversight in the manufacturing process, and untended maintenance problems.
"All combined, created a perfect storm for allowing a tragic event like this to occur," Fox said.
During the last session, Tennessee lawmakers did some work to beef up oversight of fair rides, but some proposed safety upgrades were not adopted.
One proposal would have required rides to be inspected twice a year instead of once. It died in committee.
Cannon said Tennessee is a “business friendly” state.
"It was thought to be cost-prohibitive for amusement device operators," Cannon said.
Another proposal failed that would have required ride operators to be at least 18 years old. Instead, the state adopted 16 as the minimum age for someone to operate a carnival ride.
"We follow state law to a T to make everything as safe as possible when operating within the state. We can only go as far as the law says,” Cannon said.
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