On August 13, 2011 at approximately 8:50 p.m. EST a tragic incident occurred at the Indiana State Fair killing 5 and injuring dozens more. A 60-70 mph (estimated) gust of wind triggered the incident and brought down the metal scaffolding supporting lights, speakers and other equipment onto the audience below. The stage was set for the band, Sugerland. It was estimated that 200 patrons were seated in the VIP area known as the “Sugar Pit” when the collapse occurred.
Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana has termed this incident as a “fluke” that no one could have anticipated. A fluke can be described as an accident or chance happening. An accident states that an unforeseen, unplanned event or circumstance occurs and that this event transpires from a lack of intention or necessity. This was no fluke… this incident resulted from a combination of a lack of planning and structural failure. This incident was preventable.
Indiana is prone to these types of volatile weather events. Several articles discussed two separate weather related incidents in Indiana that impacted events. In 2006, tornado-force winds hit Indianapolis following a John Mellencamp concert. In 2004, a tornado forced the interruption of the start of the Indianapolis 500. Governor Daniels stated that no one could have foreseen such a strong gust. Weather can be a funny thing; however, the event planners and venue operators had historical evidence suggesting that catastrophic wind events can and do occur in this region. A plan should have been developed that appropriately monitored and evacuated patrons in the event of a storm. Witnesses say Indiana state police took to the stage to issue a weather warning about 10 minutes before. Where was the evacuation order? Clearly they missed a primary indicator and opportunity to avoid unnecessary devastation.
In 2009, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic hosted the debut of its manned spaceship in the Mojave Desert—another wind prone area. The night of the event, hurricane-force winds leveled the event’s main tent. The difference was that the event planners and venue operators had a plan. The weather was being continuously monitored by event staff and upon the recognition of a severe windstorm the patrons were evacuated. The event planners decided long before the weather turned serious to ask patrons to seek safety and shelter elsewhere. Staged buses were available to guests for shelter. This is an excellent example of pre-planning and averting unnecessary losses. Governor Mitch Daniels said precautions were taken before the storm – what did that include?
The second failure was the stage – an entirely different topic. It is difficult to determine the cause of the collapse without inspecting it. It is evident that it failed under the winds it was subjected to, but why? Were supporting beams (braces) in place? Were guy-wires in place? Was the cabling secure and adequate? Was it inspected before use? Who did the inspection? Was the roof vented for wind? Was this stage rated for this kind of wind? Was it installed properly? There are so many questions to answer concerning this device. Hopefully, the event planners and venue operators asked them ahead of time.
Risk management planning cannot be left to chance. There are numerous examples of accidents/incidents occurring within the events industry on a daily basis. If you don’t think it can impact your organization, think again. It is a matter of time and exposures before it does. Some recent examples include: a fatal stage collapse in Edmonton, 40 people injured in a hayride accident in Washington, a 12-year old run over by a parade float, and a bouncy house blowing over injuring 6. Now, we have 5 dead and dozens more injured from another stage collapse. The numbers of incidents are staggering and all preventable. Planners and venue operators must do a better job of developing and implementing fully developed risk management plans in order to prevent incidents such as this.
In response to an article titled: Ride experts call 11-year-old Pleasantville girl’s fatal fall from Wildwood’s Morey’s Pier Ferris wheel a freak occurrence -By RICHARD DEGENER and DAN GOOD
For this blog, I will primarily focus on the death of Abiah Jones and Ferris wheels in general. Most of the discussion could be applied to additional types of amusement rides and devices. Just to be clear, a Ferris wheel is an amusement ride consisting of a small/large vertical wheel with places for people to sit or stand spaced evenly around the outer circumference (Answers.com, 2011). Ferris wheels have been around for hundreds of years. It was not until the late 1800’s that the quest for large scale Ferris wheels began. A 250 ft. Ferris wheel was debuted in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The design characteristics and features have not changed much during that time-frame.
I am following the events surrounding the recent death of an 11 year girl that fell from a Giant Wheel at Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey. Abiah Jones, 11, fell to her death on Friday, June 3rd, 2011 while riding the Giant Wheel (Ferris wheel) attraction. I am concerned about the predictability of the responses and approach that most amusement ride and device owners, operators, industry consultants and organizations provide and take when an incident/accident occurs within the amusement ride and device industry. The typical industry response starts with how safe the industry is and cites it stellar safety record based on the number of rides given annually compared to the number of injuries – and yes, the incident/accident numbers are low – no one argues that fact, but patrons are being unnecessarily injured or killed.
The industry tries to downplay the involvement of the manufacturer and/or operator of the ride or device – warning signs were posted, the rider met the requirements, regulations are stringent, and so forth. The final assault on the intelligence of the riding public comes in the form of misinformation and blame. Quotes get peppered into articles like “freak accident” or “rider error” in a disingenuous effort to inform the public of the type of incident/accident and/or the responsibility of the incident/accident that occurred. What the amusement industry does not want you to know is that similar and known incidents/accidents do happen and that unsuspecting and rule abiding guests can be injured or even die while riding or experiencing an amusement ride or device. The death of Abiah Jones—an 11 year-old girl—falling from a Giant Wheel reflects that reality appropriately.
First and foremost, the numbers of ride/device related injuries and fatalities are low. However, incidents/accidents can, do and will continue to happen within the amusement industry and many of them unnecessarily. The industry is fully aware how most incidents/accidents occur—mainly because of prior incident/accident history gathered from the past 100 years of industry trial-and-error (experimental design, etc.) —a premise that the industry was built on. The industry has progressed and safety has slowly evolved since its early beginnings in the United States, but they have not gone far enough. Giant Wheels (Ferris wheels) have been around for hundreds of years—well beyond any experimental design phase. In fact, most present day amusement rides and devices are direct descendants of rides from the past or follow similar design considerations—and as an industry, they are fully aware of the types of incidents/accidents resulting from use.
It is fairly simple to utilize this historical data to address the problem areas of the industry and require appropriate and meaningful change to prevent known types of incidents/accidents from occurring. Interestingly enough, after doing a quick internet search (10 minutes), I learned of 10 incidents/accidents resulting from falls from Ferris wheels in the United States—the majority of which were from gondola style rides like the Giant Wheel. I would wager that more incident/accident examples exist concerning Ferris wheels. Once again, I will reiterate that the industry has made strides concerning patron safety and that incidents/accidents are more isolated compared to the beginnings of the industry – the true comparison of progress.
The amusement industry has a tendency to compare safety records to other forms of entertainment offerings (playgrounds, bicycle riding, and more) — a diversionary tactic that is irresponsible. Better tactics—show the public your industry progress and explain your continued efforts to further the safety of amusement rides and devices. Certain segments of the industry are responsible for a larger share of the incidents/accidents, nevertheless, they are still occurring and the majority of them could be prevented through better design, education, enforcement and the sharing of information and ideas.
Read the next installment: Amusement Ride Manufacturers & Operators: A Flawed System