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Girl’s death prompts warning to carnival inspectors

Joe Filoromo, who oversees Pennsylvania’s amusement ride safety program and its 2,000 inspectors, is warning them to make sure that electrical wires are kept away from fencing.

And it’s because of a tragedy in Wichita.

Filoromo tries to study every carnival accident, no matter where it happens. Figure out what failed and share the information so no one else gets hurt, is the way he sees it.

So he paid close attention when he heard about a 15-month-old girl suffering critical injuries at Wichita’s Towne West parking lot carnival on May 12.

Filoromo, who has been in the amusement business or overseeing its safety since 1968, zeroed in on two things he saw in media images of the area near the bounce house: carnival electrical wires routed near carnival aluminum fencing and in a curb.

The 15-month-old girl, Pressley Bartonek, died Wednesday afternoon, her parents said in a statement Friday. They said Pressley’s organs were being donated to patients needing transplants, “that her death was not in vain.”

 

Police investigating the incident have classified it as a public electrical accident. According to various accounts, Pressley touched metal or aluminum fencing outside a bounce house around 9 p.m. May 12 at a traveling carnival in Towne West’s parking lot. The Eagle is seeking information from police about how it happened and details about how things were situated outside the bounce house, including wiring and fencing. The carnival operator, Missouri-based Evans United Shows, hasn’t responded to repeated calls and e-mails.

The circumstances behind the Wichita tragedy reminded Filoromo of an incident about 10 years ago in which a boy in Pennsylvania suffered a fortunately minor shock when he held onto a carnival ride fence. It was discovered that one of the heavy-duty wires used to power carnivals had come in contact with the fence and electrified it. It was a fairly new wire, but with a cut in the insulation.

So in Pennsylvania, Filoromo keeps reminding people to keep wires away from carnival fencing.

“The wire can be brand-new, and you can end up with a nick in it,” which can allow electricity to flow to whatever it touches, Filoromo said Thursday.

Carnival workers sometimes route wires in gutters along curbs to keep people from tripping over them. But Filoromo says, “I never allow wires to run down gutters like that because as soon as it rains, they’ll be under water,” creating another path for a potentially deadly shock. The water becomes a conductor.

“You just never know when something like this can happen.”

An odd voltage

Filoromo realizes he doesn’t have all the facts of what happened in Wichita. But he has a trained eye and decades of experience that help him focus on the most likely causes. He wonders, for example, whether there might have been lighting on the fencing that night that could have been the culprit.

The 15-month-old’s grandmother has said that the girl was swinging on a handrail that had a wire in front of the bounce house, that she suddenly was overcome, that her father had to pry her hands off the rail.

Filoromo wondered if the ground on which the girl was standing was wet and what kind of shoes she had on. Rubber-sole shoes can do a better job of insulating against a shock.

A Westar Energy worker dispatched after the girl was hurt found that carnival fencing touched by the girl was carrying 290 volts. Carnivals bring in generators that feed heavy-duty electrical cables to power their rides.

The amount – 290 volts – is not a normal figure, Filoromo said. “It doesn’t quite make sense to me.”

‘My solution’

“My solution,” Filoromo said, “is for owners and inspectors to carry a voltage detector.” It’s a battery-operated device the size of two pens. Fits in a pocket. “Less than a $20 at a Home Depot.”

“You could have touched it to that fence, and it would have beeped, lit up,” he said. “If someone would have come ahead of that girl and touched the fence” with a voltage detector, he said, they would have been alerted.

You don’t have to be an electrician, he said. “A 4-year-old could use this voltage detector and know there’s a problem.”

“This is my SOP (standard operating procedure): Take a quick walk-around. Touch everything” with the detector. And keep checking, because carnival equipment can get moved, be altered or break down suddenly.

Partly in response to the Wichita incident, Filoromo is sending out a memo to his staff and inspectors reminding them to watch for wires close to fencing or in curbs and to use voltage detectors.

“The Wichita incident to me is a reminder. I’m sure the other states are going to alert their people to it, if they haven’t already.”

Hard workers

Evans United Shows, which operated the carnival where the girl was injured, has a show at Kansas Expocentre in Topeka through May 28 and will reportedly be traveling from there to Missouri and Iowa. In the past two months, the show has set up in Kansas and Texas.

Filoromo will be talking about the Wichita injury in a discussion group that includes other people who work in amusement ride safety.

“People in the carnival industry work hard, and they don’t want anybody to get hurt. They don’t normally cut corners,” Filoromo said.

“Sharing information with them puts that tool right in their hand. They have a very busy day. These guys work from the minute they get up to the minute they go to sleep. What they live for is to provide people a good time.”

In Pennsylvania, carnivals and amusement parks are fused into the history and culture. Every town has a carnival. “Pennsylvania has more rides than any other state,” he said. The amusement ride industry basically started in Philadelphia and at New York’s Coney Island, he said.

‘All those wires’

Ken Martin, a Virginia-based amusement ride safety consultant and inspector, moderates another discussion group dealing with carnival and amusement park safety.

Martin also is studying the Wichita incident and was drawn to media images that showed what appeared to be missing outer insulation on carnival cable.

Martin also noted “all those wires” lying in the curb.

He agreed with Filoromo, saying that if a wire gets “just one nick, it can electrify whatever it touches.”

A fence carrying 290 volts is enough to kill.

“Oh, definitely,” Martin said. The father who pried his daughter off the fence could have been severely injured as well, he said. Which points out the possibility that the current was intermittent, Martin said.

Another concern that Martin saw was bunched electrical cables, which create heat that can deteriorate wire and make it unsafe. Wires should lie flat. It allows the heat to dissipate.

The cables that carnivals use are made for abuse and are sheathed in black coating that protects from the sun’s rays. Still, they are being dragged across pavement and run over by trucks. They are susceptible to damage and are costly to replace, Martin said.

No uniformity

Evans United Shows has a Plattsburg, Mo., address. Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Division of Fire Safety, said in an e-mail that its inspections include checking for proper electrical grounding and making sure that “cables that run from the generator to the rides would not have any splicing or split wiring.”

A bounce house, however, isn’t within the definition of an amusement ride under Missouri law, he said.

O’Connell said a supervisor couldn’t recall, in 15 years, any Evans United accident that had to be investigated. The company is in good standing with state of Missouri and received its annual permit and inspection for its rides last August, O’Connell said.

The federal government leaves amusement-ride regulation to the states, Martin said.

There is no uniformity in regulation from state to state, and Kansas has relatively light regulation, Martin said. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have the most rigorous regulation, he said. “They are definitely in a class by themselves.”

Because carnivals are continually moving equipment and it can be damaged or not properly installed, rides should be inspected each time they are set up by someone who is independent and vetted, he said.

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