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Home > Reading Room > Public records unearth dangers with carnival rides

SPJ Reading Room

Public records unearth dangers with carnival rides

By Charles Davis

Ever wonder about those carnival rides at the county fair? How many times have you ridden past a shopping center mini-fair, with its glowing rides, and thought to yourself, “Who knows how safe the Tilt-A-Whirl is? Who is in charge of these things?”

What about the new roller coasters out there, which pull more Gs than the Space Shuttle?

Following the death of a 4-year-old boy and a heart attack suffered by a teenage girl at Walt Disney World this summer, many questioned what kind of forces the rides impart on their passengers. Not surprisingly, the amusement parks weren’t talking, so Florida Today and its television news partner, WKMG-Local 6, decided to test the effects of Central Florida’s scream machines themselves.

Reporters rode all of the area’s biggest attractions armed with a device used to measure G-forces from all the angles that a twisting, turning roller coaster can throw at a rider.

It found strong forces that experts consider safe — assuming riders are in good health.

Among the findings by Florida Today and Local 6:

• The highest force measured in a climb was 5.37 Gs, for a split second, at the start of Rock Ôn’ Roller Coaster at Disney-MGM Studios. The ride then quickly dropped below 2 Gs.

• The highest sustained force felt from forward acceleration was on Epcot’s Mission: Space ride. It exerted force against the rider’s chest of more than 1.5 Gs for about 14 seconds. That’s less than the space shuttle’s 3 Gs, and well within safety limits.

• Busch Gardens’ newest sensation, SheiKra, briefly topped 5 Gs four times. The 30-year-old Space Mountain at Disney’s Magic Kingdom also hit 5 Gs, but for less than 1/20th of a second.

Meanwhile, the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier wondered about the many roadside carnivals that pop up each summer and fall across the Palmetto State.

Its lead:

The Wacky Worm haunts Lucinda Sigman.

It’s not that the bucktoothed, clown-nosed caterpillar adorning a popular roller coaster is menacing. It’s that the worm reminds her of the only major amusement ride accident in the 48-year history of the Coastal Carolina Fair, the state’s second largest.

Five years ago on Oct. 27, the sun had set on the Ladson fairgrounds near Summerville. Brisk autumn air carried sweet aromas of elephant ears and cotton candy through the brightly lit midway where the hoots and hollers of children competed with drumbeats and guitar squeals blasting from roof-high speakers.

Suddenly, the screams of excitement drifting from the Wacky Worm turned to shrills of terror. Several cars on the roller coaster plunged into a nine-foot gap where a section of track collapsed.

Nineteen riders, including several small children, were injured and taken to an emergency room.

Sigman was riding in one of the front cars with her then-5-year-old daughter. The track collapsed a fraction of a second after they crossed it. “Somebody could have been killed,” Sigman said. “I used to like the rides. After that, I was leery.”

The Post and Courier explained that the accident exposed a gap in the state’s amusement ride safety law: State ride inspectors did not inspect the Wacky Worm when the portable ride was assembled for the Coastal Carolina Fair, which drew nearly 250,000 people last year. That’s because the state inspection occurred nearly a month earlier, when the ride was assembled for a fair in Florence.

Reviewing reams of records under South Carolina’s public records law, the newspaper identified a major hole in state law: Rides such as the Wacky Worm need only one state inspection a year, even though they are subjected to a grueling tour schedule in which they are repeatedly operated, taken apart, transported and reassembled as they move from town to town.

An examination by the Post and Courier of state amusement ride investigation records found that the once-a-year state inspections routinely discover serious safety violations, including rides with cracked structural welds, exposed electrical wiring, missing or broken seat restraints, loose or missing hardware, fluid leaks and other dangers.

Two fascinating series, each the product of a reporter or editor wondering, “Why?”

In the next few columns, Joel Campbell, SPJ’s Freedom of Information co-chairman, and I hope to introduce you to new ways of thinking about records, about incorporating FOI throughout your newsroom, and about new ways to see stories in the everyday occurrences of life -Đ like that little carnival in the shopping center parking lot.

Back in South Carolina, legislation filed in December aims to make those rides inspected at each carnival stop, instead of annually. That’s journalism making a difference, thanks to FOI.

Charles Davis, co-chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, is the executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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