The go-cart accident that killed a Shriner last fall at the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest Parade apparently was caused by a mechanical failure with the cart, according to a just-completed police report.
Marvin Tarbox Jr., 59, of Hancock was driving the homemade cart during a performance in which drivers ascend a ramp attached to a moving SUV and come down the other side. The cart driven by Tarbox overturned, causing him to fall out and strike his head on the pavement. He then was hit by two following carts that had just gone up and over the customized 1990 Chevy Suburban.
Tarbox’s cart overturned because the leading edge made contact with a cross member on the ramp, according to the accident report by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office in Wiscasset. The impact caused a weld on the ramp to fail, sending a section through the windshield of the Suburban.
The report was obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Details of the accident emerged just as Maine’s parade season is about to begin. Members of Maine’s two Shrine temples are gearing up now to entertain crowds at dozens of festivals and community events. It’s a time-honored way that Shriners across the country raise money for a network of children’s hospitals that they sponsor.
But last fall’s tragedy raises questions about the safety of equipment and the level of training received by amateur drivers, as well as the practice of maneuvering speedy vehicles within feet of spectators, who sit on curbs along the parade routes.
In recent interviews, the leaders of Maine’s two Shrines say they have good safety records and don’t plan any noteworthy changes this year based on the isolated accident.
Anthony “Tony” Bowers, the potentate of the Anah Shrine in Bangor, said he’s not aware of anyone in Maine being hit by a Shriner parade vehicle. Bowers also said he expects the ramp stunt, which is one of the Anah Shrine’s most popular parade attractions, to continue. The Shrine’s go-cart unit has transported it all over New England and is preparing to have a new ramp built if the existing one isn’t released soon by police, so it can perform in parades this summer.
“Our insurance company hasn’t said we couldn’t, and nobody has filed any suits,” Bowers said. “These guys are ready to go and continue raising money for the children.”
The Lewiston-based Kora Shrine doesn’t do a ramp stunt, but features several motorized units, including go-carts. Barry Gates, Kora’s potentate, said the Shrine has been parading for a long time without incident, but is well aware of last year’s accident.
“We’re all very cognizant of the tragedy, and we’re doing what we can so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
NOT IN YARMOUTH
But last year’s accident has prompted one of the state’s largest events to cancel the ramp stunt. Officials at the Yarmouth Clam Festival say they would like to retain other Shriner vehicles that spectators enjoy, but are still deciding what to include in the July parade.
“Safety is our No. 1 thought when we select who’s in our parade,” said Courtney Kennedy, the volunteer parade director.
Parades are enjoyed each year by millions of people in the United States. While last year’s Shriner accident in Maine was uncommon, it wasn’t unprecedented.
• In 2007, a dune buggy that was being driven in circles during a parade in Chattanooga, Tenn., brushed another vehicle and ran into a crowd, injuring eight people.
• In 2008, four spectators, including two children, were injured when a go-cart lost control during a Fourth of July parade in Niles, Ill.
• In 2009, a Shriner hit his head and died after falling from a dune buggy during a Christmas parade in Bartlett, Tenn.
Beyond their social and fraternal activities, the Shriners are know for their philanthropy, developing and supporting 20 hospitals in the United States that focus on children with orthopedic and burn injuries. Parades are an important way for Shriners to raise money for this charity.
Members join “units” that include clowns, drum and bugle corps and motorized vehicles. Units each charge parade sponsors between $300 and $400 to participate. In 2010, the Anah Shriners were able to raise $80,000 for the hospitals.
Motorized vehicle units were first established in Maine in 1966. They now include go-carts, mini-bikes, pint-sized “Indy” cars and even lobster boats. The go-carts are among the most popular parade features, according to organizers.
NO TEST REQUIRED
The vehicles also are popular with Shrine members, who sometimes must wait for one to become available. The Anah Shrine has roughly 600 drivers, 50 or so in the go-cart unit. Bowers estimated that the average age of the go-cart drivers is 50.
There’s no test required to drive a motorized vehicle, Bowers said. But in the spring, a few Sundays are set aside to introduce new drivers to the maneuvers and offer a refresher to repeat drivers.
“They’ll do three or four of these before the season starts,” said Bowers, who drives an Indy-type car.
Bowers said he wasn’t sure how fast the cars can go; they don’t have speedometers. He estimated the top speed at 25 mph.
Every vehicle is inspected by mechanics, Bowers said, to make sure brakes and other components are working properly and that tires are good. The ramp used in the Suburban stunt is roughly 20 years old, but is inspected each spring. It had “a bit of welding done to it” last spring, according to testimony collected in the police accident report.
Bowers said he doesn’t worry about drivers straying off course and hitting a spectator. He’s more concerned about people crowding onto the street. That’s why Shriners send the clown unit ahead of the carts, he said, to make sure spectators are back from the road.
Publicity over the accident hasn’t reduced interest in the motorized vehicles at this year’s parades, Bowers said.
“The unit I’m in, we’re already flooded with requests,” he said.
The Anah Shrine parades mostly in northern communities, while the Kora Shrine focuses on events south of Waterville. Each Kora motorized unit has a safety committee, according to Gates. Practices take place weekly or every other week, he said, and the unit director is responsible for making sure new members are capable of performing the maneuvers before they can parade.
Go-carts are inspected before each season and prior to every parade, Gates said. Some units have mechanics in their ranks, he said; all have “at least one mechanically-inclined person.”
Tarbox was mechanically inclined — he was a trained Volkswagen mechanic.
Tarbox’s cart and the ramp with its bent cross beam remain stored behind the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. The cart’s red paint is chipped in the front and the frame has rusted at the point of contact. It also is obvious that the cart’s metal frame is very close to the ground. It likely would be closer still under the weight of a driver.
“It looks like the axle bent or flexed, and that let the frame drop down enough to catch the ramp support,” said Lt. Rand Maker, patrol supervisor for the Sheriff’s Office. “The margin of error was minimal, to start.”
Maker witnessed the accident while on parade traffic duty and helped supervise the investigation. The cart had been driven over the ramp many times without incident, he noted. He wondered if metal fatigue at the frame was a factor.
It’s also possible the structure of the ramp itself contributed to the cart making contact with the cross member, the accident report theorizes.
The crash reconstructionist writes: “It is unclear why such contact occurred, however, in reviewing video footage of the event, a significant amount of flex, vibration and motion occurs when the ramp is traveled on.”
‘A TRAGIC ACCIDENT’
Unlike amusement park rides, which are used by the public, parade vehicles aren’t subject to a state inspection, according to Maker. Roads are officially closed for a parade, so the vehicles don’t need to meet motor vehicle inspection standards.
The sheriff’s office also checked with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and found that a parade death isn’t a workplace issue.
Asked if parade organizers or the Shriners should modify the motorized acts this year, or whether the state should certify or inspect parade vehicles, Maker talked about striking a balance between public safety and excessive restrictions.
“This was a tragic accident that no one wants to repeat,” he said. “You can’t prevent all accidents. I think it’s about everyone being a little more careful.”
Tarbox joined the Anah Shrine in 2006 and enjoyed working on go-carts, according to his obituary.
His memory is being honored May 20, when the Anah Shrine hosts the first Marvin Tarbox Memorial Drive. Intended to be an annual event, it will take Shriners and their supporters on a circuit by car and motorcycle from Bangor to Belfast, with money being raised for a scholarship at Eastern Maine Community College in Tarbox’s name.
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was updated Monday, May 7 to reflect that the upcoming Marvin Tarbox Memorial Ride is being hosted by the Low XII Riders, the central/northern Maine chapter of the Widows Sons Masonic Riders Association. The event is being held to raise money for a scholarship at Eastern Maine Community College in Tarbox’s name.