Maine inspects amusement rides only once a year, although that doesn’t appear to have been a factor in two ride accidents at a Waterville carnival Friday and Saturday, the state fire marshal said Sunday.

Joseph Thomas said the rides are inspected when they are first set up in Maine, and operators are then given an inspection sticker that allows them to operate that ride throughout the year as they move to different sites. Thomas said all 20 rides at the carnival at Waterville’s Head of Falls park, where the two accidents occurred, received their first-setup inspections last week, before the show opened.

Thomas said Sunday that his office is still investigating the accident Friday evening on the Dragon Wagon at the Waterville carnival – a small roller-coaster ride on which three children were injured. In that incident, two of the cars decoupled and then crashed into each other.

The injuries were not considered serious. One child was taken directly to a hospital by an ambulance and the other two were driven by parents to the hospital. All three were treated and released.

Thomas said the accident Saturday, in which a woman fell off a swing ride, was “rider error” because she undid a safety belt and attempted to get off the ride before it stopped. Her injury was not considered serious.

The swing ride was back in operation Sunday at the carnival, but the Dragon Wagon remained closed as investigators continued probing the cause of the mechanical failure. As part of the investigation, the Office of State Fire Marshal has contacted the ride’s manufacturer, Wisdom Rides of Colorado, for engineering information, Thomas said.

It’s fairly common for people to suffer minor injuries on an amusement ride, but mechanical errors are much rarer, he said. The most recent significant mechanical failure occurred two years ago on a tilt-a-whirl ride in Livermore Falls, he said.

The four-day carnival in Waterville, a fundraiser for the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers in that city, concluded Sunday. It featured a midway ride area operated by Smokey’s Greater Shows, a Maine company with rides at several other festivals across the state, including a Ferris wheel at the Old Port Festival in Portland, which concluded Sunday.


Thomas said six inspectors from his office were in Waterville last week because there were 20 rides to examine. He said the inspections consist primarily of a visual check of connections and safety equipment, but inspectors also physically check some critical connections. Inspectors follow a checklist provided by the manufacturer, he said.

Sometimes, Thomas said, the rides are not operated during an inspection.

“It’s a thorough inspection,” he said, but it’s not an engineering inspection, which would include such things as X-rays of connections or metal tests. Most of the rides in Waterville were checked by inspectors who are certified by a national safety organization, although Thomas said not all of his inspectors are certified.

He likened the work of uncertified inspectors to apprentice plumbers. The apprentices, Thomas said, might do some of the work on the job, but their work is then reviewed by a master plumber. The work of uncertified inspectors, he said, is backed up through a review by a certified inspector.

Thomas said six inspectors from his office are certified by national safety organizations. He said he usually sends two or three inspectors to training to get recertified each year.

Thomas said he doesn’t have the staff to conduct more frequent inspections.

“When I’m doing inspections, I’m not doing fire investigations,” he said. “When we get into ride season, it’s all hands on deck.”

Inspection training is typically done by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, said Ken Martin, a safety consultant in the amusement ride industry. A call to the association Sunday was not returned.

Inspection rules vary widely by state, he said.

Martin, who is based in Virginia, said some states allow ride operators to do the inspections, which are usually required by the operator’s insurer. He said a variety of departments perform inspections, depending on the state, from the fire marshal’s offices to labor or agricultural departments.

Likewise, he said some states require inspections whenever the rides are set up in a new location, while others, like Maine, require only an annual inspection.

An inspection of the Dragon Wagon ride, Martin said, would usually involve a spot check of some of the hitches between cars and a thorough check of the pins that hold sections of track together. Martin said he would also inspect how close the loading and unloading area is to the operator’s station. He once offered expert testimony in a case involving a ride similar to the Dragon Wagon in which improper communication between the attendant helping children on and off the ride and the operator resulted in an accident in which a little girl’s pelvis was broken.

Martin said the jacks that hold up the track also need to be checked.

“There’s only one way to make sure, and that’s to give it a kick,” he said.

He said rides should be running while they’re inspected, primarily to make sure electrical connections are working and safe.

Martin said he had never heard of an incident similar to the one Friday in Waterville. He said the cars are required to be connected with a metal hitch and a safety chain, and that redundancy should prevent the cars from decoupling.

Martin said traveling amusement ride shows, like Smokey’s, are often considered safer than the rides at permanent amusement parks. That’s because workers can sometimes detect defects as they take down and set up the rides, he said. But he also said the rides in the traveling shows are subject to more wear-and-tear because they are frequently taken to different locations.

Thomas said his staff’s authority to do inspections was inadvertently repealed by state lawmakers last year, but then reinstated this year.

“It was a mistake they made when they were purging older statutes,” he said, but was discovered during an investigation into a fatal hayride crash last October in Mechanic Falls. The Legislature restored the inspection authority this year and also added hayrides to the list of amusement rides that must be inspected.

Thomas said the lapse in inspection authority had no effect because it took place over the winter, when the rides are not operating in Maine.

He said a change in the fees for inspections has improved the situation in his office financially.

There used to be a flat $50-per-ride fee, he said, even if it was a large ride that tied up two or three inspectors for much of the day. That has since been increased to $75 per hour per inspector, he said.


In Waterville, some fairgoers Sunday were exercising caution after the accidents over the weekend.

“We said we were going to come and get a doughboy and not go on any of the rides,” said Sarah Peterson of Vassalboro, who was visiting the fair with her roommates, Jason Webster and Ryan Blakeney.

“I don’t want to get hurt,” she said.

Webster said that he usually goes on carnival rides, but the injuries Friday and Saturday made him reconsider. He recognized that amusement rides always carry some risk, however.

“The thing is, they’re still rides, so there’s always a chance there’s going to be problems,” he said.

Lori Lawler of Waterville was surprised to learn that the rides had to pass an annual state inspection.

“I didn’t think they did that here,” she said when told that rides were inspected every year. She had taken her children to carnival rides when they were young and was getting back into the habit now that she has grandchildren, Lawler said.

The smaller children’s rides that are closer to the ground are safe, but she wouldn’t go on some of the taller adult rides, Lawler said.

“Accidents happen from time to time, even at the large amusement parks,” she said. “You always take a chance no matter what you do, whether it’s on a ride or getting into your car.”

Sharing that sentiment was Rena Gordon of Waterville, who was watching her 3-year-old daughter, Raine Richardson, happily spinning around in one of the amusement rides. Gordon said she wasn’t worried about her children’s safety.

“Accidents happen,” she said. “Kids are kids. Stuff like that’s going to happen.”

“I went on Smokey’s as a kid. I trust them,” Gordon said. “It was inspected before the ride, and it was considered safe and then an accident happened.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Peter McGuire contributed to this report.