I-TEAM: An inside look at how state inspectors ensure thrill rides are safe in Ohio

DAYTON — Ohio is famous for setting records when it comes to rides that thrill. People come to our state from all over the world seeking out thrills on some of the tallest and fastest roller coasters in the world.

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But in rare and tragic situations, thrill rides can kill. So how do you know if a ride is safe? And is there a difference between safety standards at amusement parks, a state or county fair, or a local festival?

That’s exactly what News Center 7 sent the I-Team’s Lead Investigative Reporter, John Bedell, behind the scenes to find out.

Aside from big-time thrill rides and roller coasters at parks like Cedar Point and Kings Island, people hop on rides at The Ohio State Fair, county fairs, and church and community festivals across the Buckeye State each summer.

But just two months ago, a teenager died on an amusement ride in Florida. 14-year-old Tyre Sampson died while riding the Orlando FreeFall ride at ICON Park on March 24 in Orlando, Fla. The ride is billed as the tallest of its kind in the world.

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After the tragedy, a preliminary report said Sampson’s seat had been adjusted, doubling the size of the opening for harnesses that close down over the shoulders to a rider’s waist. The report stated the adjustments resulted in Sampson not being properly secured, causing him to slip out of the seat halfway down the ride’s nearly 400-foot plunge.

The I-Team sought answers about what’s being done to keep you and your family safe on rides here in Ohio. We spent weeks working to set up a time and place to shadow state ride inspectors with the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) at an amusement park.

Cedar Point declined the I-Team’s request to allow us to shadow ODA ride inspectors at their park last month.

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And Cedar Point and Kings Island each declined the I-Team’s request for on-camera interviews for this report. Instead, both parks, which are owned by the same parent company, Cedar Fair, sent the I-Team separate, but nearly identical statements.

Each park said they take “many steps and measures to ensure safety at the park,” and added, “Included in these measures are routine, daily ride inspections. Our team looks at everything from tracks to wheels to seatbelts and even the computers that control the rides. We also conduct off-season inspections where ride vehicles are removed and inspected all the way down to the frames. Additionally, the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Amusement Ride Safety & Fairs division conducts annual inspections. These measures, combined with extensive ride operator training and our park’s ride operations’ policies, ensure that safety is as at the forefront of everything we do.”

Over the last five years, from 2017 through 2021, one person died on a ride here in Ohio. 18-year-old Tyler Jarrell died when the Fire Ball ride broke apart at the Ohio State Fair in 2017. Seven other people were hurt in the ride malfunction that was later blamed on excessive corrosion in a steel support beam.

In the wake of the tragedy in Columbus, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed “Tyler’s Law” in 2019. It was legislation prompted by Jarrell’s death and named in his honor. The law strengthened ride safety and inspection standards here in Ohio.

The I-Team obtained documents through public records requests that show inspectors with the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) took a total of 19 accident reports in that same five-year span:

  • 2017 - 3 accident reports
  • 2018 - 7 accident reports
  • 2019 - 5 accident reports
  • 2020 - 2 accident reports
  • 2021 - 2 accident reports

The ODA said an accident report is generated when someone is admitted to the hospital due to a ride injury.

For perspective, that’s 19 ride injuries that require hospital admissions out of all the people who have ridden rides across Ohio in the last five years -- from Cedar Point and Kings Island, to the state and county fairs, down to church and community festivals.

The I-Team found all those rides are inspected by the same group – inspectors with the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“We do somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 inspections annually,” said David Miran, the Division of Amusement Ride Safety and Office Affairs Chief for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“We inspect an 8 by 10 inflatables, and we inspect the big coasters at the big parks and everything in between,” Miran said. “We do waterslides as well.”

Before any ride, anywhere in Ohio can open each season, there’s an extra layer of safety in the form of state oversight. ODA inspects every ride in Ohio at least once a year. That annual inspection from ODA is required before the ride can operate each season.

As a part of our investigation, the I-Team shadowed state ride inspectors who go over every inch of every ride before you or your family are allowed to step on and buckle in.

We watched as ODA’s Lead Amusement Ride and Game Inspector, Ron Dean, carefully examined the rides from Albanese Amusements for their annual checkup.

Dean’s boss told the I-Team, the exam happens in two parts.

“There’s the static inspection and an operational inspection,” Miran said. “It’s the same inspection but it’s divided into two halves. The static is: you’re looking at the ride like this when it’s not in motion just making sure that everything is in working order, it’s been set up as it should be according to the manufacturer’s requirements. And then the operational inspection is: my guys run the ride and make sure it’s running smoothly and there’s no errors when the ride is running.”

Some issues inspectors find, Dean says, have quick fixes. “Seatbelts -- maybe a seatbelt’s worn -- we would probably shut a seat down until a seatbelt is replaced,” Dean said.

Uncovering bigger problems might shutdown the ride until they’re repaired. “So the inspectors will mark that,” Miran said. “They’ll talk with the owner and make sure that it’s corrected before it’s operational or they’ll give them a timetable to fix it.”

ODA tells the I-Team, their safety standards are the same whether the rides are at Cedar Point or Kings Island, the state or county fair, even a church or community festival. “The difference is the complexity of the ride,” Miran said. “But everyone needs to be licensed and inspected.”

And here in Ohio, ride owner/operators like Albanese Amusements, are required to do daily, pre-opening inspections on their own rides and fix any problems that arise during the season. And the companies have to document those daily checks. “From time to time, the state will ask to see your paperwork so that they know you’re keeping up on it,” Michael Albanese, the owner of Albanese Amusements told the I-Team during his company’s annual inspection in Columbus earlier this month.

“We play mainly in the southeastern part of Ohio,” Albanese said. “From Columbus east and down to the south. 2020 was our 75th year. That goes back with my father. We do county fairs, and we do festivals and we do church festivals.”

Miran tells the I-Team he believes Ohio has one of the strongest ride safety programs in the country. “These rides are thoroughly checked, often times multiple times per season,” Miran said. “And so we believe these rides are safe here in Ohio for all families to enjoy.”

As a ride operator, Albanese said he welcomes the extra layer of safety. “We have one of the highest standards and inspections process there is,” Albanese said. “Other states have taken our policies and added it to their policies. And I really see nothing wrong with it.”

The Ohio Department of Agriculture tells the I-Team the agency’s ride inspectors go to every county fair in Ohio. As a result, ODA inspectors will be here in the Miami Valley later this summer inspecting rides at county fairs across our area.