Inspecting the Inspectors: How does Ohio’s inspection program stack up?

Local News

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — For the past nine months, NBC4 has been demanding change after the fatal Fireball accident at the Ohio State Fair. Now, our Inspecting the Inspectors investigation takes us to South Carolina—a state that took drastic measures after a fatal accident of its own.

NBC4’s Katie Ferrell recently traveled to South Carolina to go on an inspection with the state’s top three ride officials. She found some glaring differences between Ohio and South Carolina’s ride inspection programs. 

The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) said Ohio permitted 3,765 rides in 2016. That’s five times as many rides as South Carolina which permitted 750 rides in 2017. But, South Carolina has triple the amount of inspectors who look at rides; six state inspectors and 19 special inspectors licensed by the state. Ohio has eight state inspectors that look at rides. 

In 2011, a kiddie train flew off the tracks in Spartanburg, South Carolina, killing a boy and injuring more than a dozen others. The driver of the children’s train admitted going too fast before the accident. Deputy Director Jim Knight with the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulations, Office of Elevators and Amusement Rides said after the accident, the state took a hard look at its program.

“Certifications had not been maintained for inspectors in the program,” said Knight. “Leadership in the program was not there.”

Fast forward to today and South Carolina has one of the most aggressive ride inspection programs in the country.

“We redoubled our efforts and our commitment to this program,” said Knight.

Robert Maxwell is South Carolina’s Chief Ride Inspector. He’s been with the department for 27 years. 

“I put a lot on my shoulders,” he said. “I take this very serious and I do look at this that kids will be riding, even my children.”

Since October, NBC4 has requested an on-camera interview with the ODA at least seven times. Every request was denied. One phone call got NBC4 full access to South Carolina’s program.

“Bottom line, we are public servants, and we work for the public, the taxpayers, and they are our ultimate bosses. And, they should know what we’re doing,” said Knight.

The state’s top three ride officials showed Ferrell how they do inspections at a South Carolina theme park. One of 19 special inspectors licensed by the state looks at a ride before one of six state inspectors does a second inspection.

“The more eyes that have a chance to look at that ride, we think it’s going to make for a better safety experience,” said Knight.

Knight said the state has hundreds of ride manuals on file for inspectors to study; to learn about every bolt, wheel and pump. In Ohio, inspectors have to request manuals from the operator, because the ODA said manuals are kept with the operator while the ride is in Ohio.

“We can’t just count on the manufacturer to be responsible for safety. We can’t just count on the ride operator. We’ve got to do our part too,” said Knight.

Another difference in programs is while South Carolina follows all of the voluntary safety standards set out by the industry (ASTM), the ODA told NBC4 it only follows some.

The Fireball ride operated in South Carolina in April of 2017; three and a half months before it broke apart in the air at the Ohio State Fair in July of 2017. It passed inspection in both Ohio and South Carolina. After the accident, Knight said South Carolina has rules about the ride and others like it.

“To date as of today, the Fireball is still not permitted in South Carolina,” said Knight.

The Fireball manufacturer blamed the accident on corrosion. We asked knight how difficult it is to detect.

“It’s going to take someone with a good eye a lot of experience to identify that,” he said.

Knight said if you want to operate a ride in South Carolina, you better buckle up. 

“I’ll tell you this… if you’re coming to South Carolina, you better have your game on,” said Knight.

We asked if the ODA has made any changes in the wake of the accident at the Ohio State Fair when 18-year-old Tyler Jarrell was killed and seven others were seriously hurt in the accident. It didn’t answer that question. But, there are two Ohio lawmakers taking matters into their own hands, trying to make a difference.

NBC4 will have their story exclusively on Tuesday, May 1st.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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