The Flight Commander was in full swing, its steel arms sweeping around and around, spinning its passengers in barrel rolls 60 feet above the ground.
Then Candy Taylor fell out. The 32-year-old woman slipped from the confines of the safety bar and shoulder harness, and died instantly when she hit the ground.Her death in June at Kings Island Amusement Park near Cincinnati was followed last week by the death of a 17-year-old boy who fell from a ferris wheel in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Both deaths were reminders that even though amusement and carnival rides are engineered to be safe, patrons are still taking a risk when they climb aboard, especially if they are careless or reckless.
Taylor, blood tests revealed, had been legally drunk and possibly unconscious when she fell from the Flight Commander. The boy who died in Myrtle Beach, witnesses said, was rocking his cab when he fell out.
Ninety people were killed on amusement rides between 1973 to 1989, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. The agency estimates about 7,000 injuries occur each year on rides, ranging from bumps and bruises to broken limbs and concussions.
Government officials and industry executives point out that the number of deaths is small when compared with the estimated 2.5 billion amusement rides people take each year.
"The statistics are quite good," says Leonard Cavalier, the chief amusement ride inspector for Ohio. "The rides are probably safer than any people-moving industry out there."
"Many more people are killed each year falling off their own toilet seat or falling out of bed," adds Richard Coulter, executive director of the American Recreational Equipment Association, which represents 72 ride manufacturers.
The CPSC backs Coulter up. The agency recorded 35,000 injuries from falls involving toilets and 260,000 injuries associated with beds. Some 1 million injuries and deaths were associated with stairs alone.
"You so seldom have a problem on rides, we don't pay any attention to it at all," says Bob O'Brien, a spokesman for the National Safety Council.
But as the public's demand for excitement has increased in recent years, the 600 amusement parks and 500 traveling carnivals in the United States have bought bigger and more thrilling rides.
Roller coasters that run at 70 miles an hour are not unusual. As a result, the chance of a spectacular accident has grown.
The CPSC has broad jurisdiction over traveling carnivals but has nobody on staff who does regular inspections. It has no jurisdiction over amusement parks.
Thirty-five states now regulate rides, requiring state licensing and inspections. Many of the states require annual x-ray inspections to detect metal fatigue.
This has caused the number of transient carnival owners with potentially dangerous rides to drop sharply over the years, says Dan Dudley, former chief inspector for Maryland and now a private consultant.
Fifteen states have no inspection requirements. Coulter estimates that about 2 percent of the traveling carnivals stay in states with no regulation to avoid inspections.
These states are Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming.
But R.K. "Rolly" Anderson, executive director of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, which represents 500 traveling carnivals, says the day of the fly-by-night carnival are over, ended by tight scrutiny from insurance companies, who often write $1 million policies for rides.
Their inspectors keep a close eye on ride safety to protect themselves from the lawsuits that inevitably are filed after an accident. "Insurance inspectors are often much better qualified than the government inspectors," he says.
Human error, either by ride operators and patrons, remains the biggest safety hazard on rides, accounting for more than 80 percent of accidents.
People can protect themselves from potentially dangerous rides, Cavalier says, simply by checking out the condition of the park, whether it is well-kept, whether the operators are in uniforms and are attentive, and whether the rides are painted and seem well maintained.
"Anybody going to any amusement facility has to take responsibility for taking care of themselves," he says.