When Travis and Mitch Taylor climbed from their seats on the Ohio State Fair’s Fire Ball ride Wednesday evening, the 18-year-old cousins pondered another spin.
The Fire Ball, an “aggressive thrill” carnival ride that swoops like a pendulum and swings in a circle, had been their favorite for eight years. But Travis had just come from work and was hungry, so he suggested they first get some food.
“And thank God he did,” Mitch Taylor told The Washington Post, “because that’s what saved us.”
Just moments later, the cousins watched with horror as their beloved Fire Ball turned into a lethal machine, killing one man and injuring seven others in what Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich would later describe as “the worst tragedy in the history of the fair.”
As they backpedaled toward food, the Taylor boys saw the gondola wheel, made of six rows arranged in an inward-facing circle, swing high to the right and back to the left, just as it had when they rode. Then there was a screech and screams and suddenly people were free-falling. Seat belts failed at least two riders, who were flung into the air, and an entire row of the gondola wheel broke away and plummeted toward the concrete.
The cousins shook with fear and said they thought: “What the hell just happened?”
Shocked onlookers screamed and cried, Mitch Taylor said, and almost immediately police and EMS began blocking off the crowd from those who had been ejected during the ride malfunction.
Three of the injured were taken to OhioHealth Grant Medical Center. By late Wednesday, two had been released and one patient remained hospitalized in critical condition, a hospital spokesman said. Another three were brought to Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, where Dr. David Evans told reporters that “multiple passengers were ejected at high speed, at high energy more than 20 feet or more.”
Just after 4 a.m., the hospital said that one of the patients was in serious condition and two were in critical condition. The victims vary in age, from teenagers to at least one in their 60s.
At a news conference Wednesday night, Kasich called for a full investigation and ordered all rides at the fair shut down until safety inspections could be made. “We will get to the bottom of this,” the governor said. “There will be complete transparency.”
The Ohio Highway Patrol will lead the inquiry.
Last year, more than 900,000 people attended the fair, which is one of the nation’s largest, according to Cleveland.com.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine you have family that goes to a state fair and those calls come, that there was a terrible accident, a terrible tragedy, and someone you love is involved,” Kasich said.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also issued a statement, saying he and his wife send their “deepest sympathies to all those who were impacted by the accident.”
Amusements of America, the carnival operator that deployed a fleet of rides to the Ohio State Fair, did not return a request for comment, nor did organizers of the Ohio State Fair.
The fair’s Twitter account later shared a statement: “Our hearts are heavy for the families of those involved in last night’s tragic accident.”
The fatal Fire Ball malfunction prompted California State Fair organizers on the other side of the country to shut down the attraction to its guests, reported NBC affiliate KCRA 3, even though it had not been flagged for safety issues.
“As far as I’m concerned, unless the factory calls us and says it can run, it’s down,” Barry Schaible, a contract inspector hired by the state of California, told the TV station.
The Fire Ball debuted in 2002 and pivots and swirls as high as 40 feet at 13 revolutions a minute, according to a description from Amusements of America.
Michael Vartorella, a ride inspector with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said at the news conference his team oversees 4,300 pieces of equipment in the state, which are carefully inspected to ensure working condition of electrical systems, hydraulics and structural integrity. The Fire Ball was inspected three or four times before the fair began, he said.
Vartorella insisted that inspectors did not rush their safety checks, though the Columbus Dispatch reported earlier in the week that rain and flooding delayed inspections until just before the fair opened.
He became emotional during the news conference as he described the stakes of the safety of those rides.
“My grandchildren ride this equipment,” he said. “We take this job very serious, and when we have an accident like this … it hits us really hard.”
The fatal incident took place at about 7:20 p.m., Battalion Chief Steve Martin, a spokesman for the Columbus Fire Division, told the Columbus Dispatch.
The Fire Ball malfunction and ensuing chaos was caught on video and widely circulated on social media and local news stations Wednesday night. One shows the six rows that form the gondola wheel – each with four seats – rocketing side to side from the top of a parabolic arc. As it swoops down and over the ride’s platform, at least two of the rows appear to strike a metal structural support beam. A loud screech can be heard as one row snaps off, but it’s unclear if the break or the impact with the beam generated the noise.
Two people were launched into the air, and one man landed on the ground about 50 feet from the ride, Martin told the Dispatch. He was killed on impact.
Travis Taylor echoed the sentiment many fairgoers who were fretting over Wednesday night: “It very well could have been us,” he said.
“You see those videos of a roller coaster malfunctioning,” Travis Taylor said, “but you never think it can actually happen.”
Fair organizers said in their statement that the gates will reopen at 9 a.m. Thursday and “other activities will resume as scheduled.” Kasich shut down all 71 rides after the Fire Ball incident but most will open back up once they are reinspected, officials said.
The governor sought to downplay concerns of fair guests, some of whom have bought season passes, who may think twice before returning to the fair, which runs until Aug. 6.
“We’ll move on but it doesn’t mean we don’t grieve for what happened,” Kasich said.
“I’ll be at the fair,” he added.
But the Taylor cousins didn’t share the governor’s confidence.
“We could not think of going on any rides after we saw that,” Mitch Taylor said. “I might go back for the food, but I won’t be riding any rides, I’ll tell you that.”