State revokes operating permit for Ferris wheel after 3 fall from ride

by: KIRO 7 News Staff Updated:

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PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. - Washington state pulled the operating permit for the Ferris wheel that dumped three people 30 feet to the ground in Port Townsend. 

Here's what we know now. 

Who was injured?

A 47-year-old mother, her 59-year-old partner, and their 7-year-old son were on the Phoenix Ferris Wheel on Thursday night at the Rhododendron Festival.

See photos of the scene here.

The 47-year-old and child were sent to a nearby hospital. The 59-year-old woman was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in critical condition with a head injury and multiple fractures. As of Friday morning, she was in serious but stable condition in intensive care.

What happened?

Police were told the ride made a grinding sound and something appeared to fall out. The cart slowly tipped over and dumped the passengers.

They tried to hold on, but fell violently, hitting the wheel near the 20-feet mark.

People on the scene said it appeared a pin or section came off the wheel, but it’s unclear what exactly fell out from the ride.   

KIRO 7 News talked to ride Inspector Richard Stromberg.

>> Related: How do you know a fair ride is safe?

“There [was] some damage on the gate. We don’t know if it opened accidentally, whether a passenger leaned against it,” he said.

The Phoenix Wheels has no seatbelts, according to the company Funtastic. A Jefferson County Fire and Rescue spokesman reports the company had a choice of putting in that safety precaution.

“The ride sold to the operator without a seatbelt. They had the option of installing seatbelts, but if they do they avoid any original warranty by the manufacturer of the ride,” spokesman Bill Beezley said.

Why was the permit pulled? 

The Washington Department of Labor & Industries revoked the state permit Friday for Funtastic Rides Company’s Ferris wheel after two women and a child plummeted from the ride to the ground the day before.

An attorney for the company, Timothy Parker, stated that according to two other operators and a person visiting the festival, passengers in that Ferris wheel gondola were standing, as they should not be.

KIRO 7 reached out to inspector Richard Spromberg for confirmation but could not reach him on Friday afternoon.

Spromberg spent the morning examining the other rides at the Rhododendron Festival in Port Townsend and deemed them safe to operate.

“We try to put everything together, whether it was mechanical, whether it was operator error, whether it was passenger error, don't know until we got it all figured out,” he said early Friday.

Spromberg stated it is still unclear exactly what caused the gondola, which carried two women and a child, to tip.

“There's some damage on the gate,” he said. “We don't know whether the gate came open accidentally or whether a passenger leaned against it.”

Spromberg is certified by Labor & Industries.

KIRO 7 asked for state records and found out that the ride passed its inspection and received its one-year permit from L & I last October.

The president of Funtastic, Ron Burback, told KIRO 7 he is confident the accident was not caused by operator error.

He said police checked all three operators’ blood alcohol levels and they were all clean.

“Your heart goes out to them, first and foremost,” said attorney James McCormick, who sued Funtastic in 2009 on behalf of families whose four children were on a Funtastic ride when it tipped.

Six people in total were sent to the hospital when the Lolli Swing tipped over at the Puyallup Fair.

“You have kids on these things-- they have to be so safe, because you're putting kids and families on them,” he said. “It has to be designed and operated so that-- this kind of thing never, ever happens.”

According to Labor & Industries, there was a mechanical issue at the Puyallup Fair in 2011 with another Funtastic ride, the Kersplash roller coaster.

L&I records stated that riders were stuck and had to be lifted off. No one was injured.

McCormick has been through the process before and said it may take a while to get certain answers.

“The Consumer Product Safety Commission will investigate the ride also,” he said, “and that will probably be the most in-depth investigation from an outside agency.”

Burback said the Ferris wheel does not come with seat belts and to have added them would have voided a manufacturer warranty.

He said he is already writing to the manufacturer to see if they will let him add the seat belts and also keep the warranty.

What’s the history of company that operates the ride?

Funtastic will conduct its own investigation.

President Ron Burback said Thursday’s incident is the first of it’s kind in the company’s history.

A Washington Labor and Industries spokesman told KIRO 7 News that its department does not keep a running list of fair ride incidents with injuries.

According to L&I’s records did show that Funtastic had a few snags with its rides in the last decade. 

A Funtastic ride called “Curse Splash” had a mechanical issue in 2011 and a lift had to get four occupants out of the ride in Puyallup. No one was injured in the ride.

Funtastic also was involved in an incident with injuries in 2009 when the Children’s Lolly Swing tipped over at the Puyallup Fair, now called the Washington State Fair. Multiple people were injured.

Funtastic has been in operation since the 1950s. Burback said the company hosts annual, week-long safety seminars, attended by amusement ride operators and government officials from around the country.

About Rhody Festival

Celebrated the third week each May, the Rhody Festival in Port Townsend is a community tradition dating back to 1935. It honors the Washington State flower with its festival and scholarships. 

Jefferson County Rhododendron Festival officials released a statement Thursday night:

"First and foremost the Rhododendron Festival would like to ask for everyone to please pray for all the victims in today’s carnival accident. This was a tragic event and our thoughts and prayers are with all involved.  At this time we are letting the Port Townsend Police Department, East Jefferson Fire and Rescue and Funtastic Traveling Shows (which the carnival is owned and operated by) conduct their investigations."

"Any detailed inquiries regarding the incident need to be directed to the above mentioned agencies. Thank you to all the volunteers and employees that stepped up out of the crowd to make sure the victims were attended to and the incident was controlled.  Once again please keep the victims and their families in your prayers."