The three people who fell out of a gondola on a Ferris wheel in Port Townsend on Thursday may have caused the accident by moving around or standing while the ride was in motion, according to the president of the company that owns the equipment.
A 59-year-old woman was critically injured when she fell 12 feet to the deck of The Phoenix Wheel, a 40-foot-tall ride at the Rhododendron Festival, around 6 p.m., said Ron Burback, president of Funtastic Rides, based in Oregon.
She was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center, where she was in serious condition Friday, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
The two other occupants of the ride, a woman in her 40s and a 7-year-old boy, were treated and released from a hospital, Burback said. They fell about 15 feet to a grassy area adjacent to the ride, he said.
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The women and boy were inside a gondola at the 7 o’clock position, with the ride moving counterclockwise when the car flipped over, spilling the occupants, Burback said. The Phoenix Wheel, which rotates both clockwise and counterclockwise, has 18 small gondolas that can each comfortably fit three people.
“It’s a horrific accident,” he said. “For something like this to happen is extremely rare.”
The company has hired an independent ride inspector.
Burback said from what he’s learned so far, the three injured riders were warned by the operator to remain seated during the Ferris wheel’s previous revolution.
“We know at this point it wasn’t operator error and the machine was balanced,” Burback said. “It doesn’t appear to be mechanical.”
According to Burback, a broken part found lying on the deck isn’t part of the equipment’s assembly; instead, it belongs to the gear used to crank the ride up for transport.
From photos he’s seen, Burback said, it appears the gondola tipped over at a 45-degree angle.
“We’re looking at something the occupants did. It could be a combination of different motion or momentum that occurred in that tub to make it happen,” he said. “That’s kind of where we’re looking.”
Dusty Janke-Call, who was in a gondola directly below the one that tipped over, told KING-5 she heard a grinding noise just before the accident.
“It went all the way up, and as it started coming back down almost at the very top, the cart right above us started shaking,” she said.
Matthew Erlich, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), said his agency’s main responsibility in the ongoing investigation is to ensure Funtastic’s rides all have their permits — which they did — and the company is certified to operate — which it is.
Typically, Funtastic has its rides inspected by third-party inspectors in the two weeks before and during the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, said Erlich.
The company’s rides were all inspected and permitted in the fall and have operating permits good through Oct. 1, Erlich said. Given Thursday’s accident, the permit for The Phoenix Wheel will be revoked and the ride will need to be inspected again, he said.
Funtastic is covered by a $1 million per incident insurance policy, which is required by L&I, according to Erlich.
Before Thursday, Funtastic — which operates in numerous states — had no major incidents in Washington since 2011.
That September, there was a mechanical problem on Funtastic’s Kersplash ride at the Washington State Fair, and four people had to be removed from the ride with a lift, Erlich said. No one was injured.
In April 2009, six people were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries and another eight people, mostly children, suffered cuts and bruises when a Lolli Swing toppled over during the Spring Fair in Puyallup, said Erlich.
Erlich suggested parents taking their children to amusement parks and fairs look for bright yellow stickers, which indicate a ride has an operating permit.
“People should look for them near where the ride operator is located,” Erlich said.
While “there’s no fail-safe way to know a ride is safe,” Erlich said, L&I also includes a parent checklist for amusement rides on its website.