Ride operator arrested in North Carolina State Fair ride accident
RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The investigation into Thursday's ride accident at the N.C. State Fair has led to the arrest of a 46-year-old man who operated the ride.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison announced Saturday night that Timothy Dwayne Tutterrow, of Georgia has been charged with three felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious bodily injury.
"After inspection of the ride, we determined that it had been tampered with and critical safety devices were compromised," said Harrison.
Tutterrow appeared before a magistrate at the Wake County Justice Center Saturday night. Investigators said his actions set in motion the horrific chain of events that sent five people to the hospital.
ABC11 spoke to Tutterrow's attorney Sunday, but he told Eyewitness News that it is too early for an official interview.
However, he did say that Tutterrow is a father, a grandfather, and that he is devastated, distraught, and his thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were hurt.
Tutterrow remains behind bars and will face a judge Monday morning.
The sheriff's office would not say exactly what was done to the ride, but they did say the investigation is continuing, and additional arrests may be made.
"This makes me mad to think that anybody would put people's safety in danger like they have and I'm not mad, I'm furious and people are going to have their day in court," said N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
"Just the thought that somebody would do something like this, I can hardly stand it, and that's where my patience runs thin," he added.
"You want everyone who does come here to have a good time and you want them to go home safely ... the thing we keep in mind is we had something happen that you never want to see happen," said N.C. State Fair spokesman Brian Long.
Tutterrow is employed by an independent ride contractor. The Vortex is the only ride the company has at the State Fair.
Officials have already decided the Vortex will not be at the fair next year and said it is highly unlikely the company will bring any other rides to the fair in the future.
"We will be very cognizant of the fact that that particular company was here this year when something happened," added Long.
Five people were injured in the accident. The victims, all between the ages of 14 and 39 years old, were taken to WakeMed Hospital. Two have been released.
The three victims that remain hospitalized are 29 year-old Anthony Gorham, 39-year-old Kisha Gorham, and a 14-year-old whose name was not released.
The severity of the conditions of those still being treated has not been released.
Attendance since the Accident
On a Friday night that would normally be packed with fairgoers eager to ride the attractions, ABC11 saw noticeably shorter lines at the rides.
Friday's official attendance at the fair was 82,163. Last year, the second Friday drew 92,418 people.
On Saturday, the fair was 17,000 people shy of what it was on the same day last year.
N.C. State Fair spokesman Brian Long said they noticed a dip in attendance since the accident, but he said weather also played a factor.
Officials said the Vortex will not reopen and it will continue to serve as a crime scene in this ongoing investigation.
911 Calls Released
Seconds after the accident happened, 911 calls flooded into the emergency center.
Caller: "We're at the Vortex ride, and people have come off the ride. People were hurt bad."
Caller: "My son was on the ride. He's okay, but there are people hurt here."
Caller: "I'm standing here at the Vortex, and there's like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 people down. They fell 30, 15 to 20 feet."
Caller: "The ride turned upside down and dumped everybody out. There are people bleeding really bad, like their heads and stuff, not moving at all."
Caller: "I have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 confirmed that are still on the ride. I think they've drug a few of them off. But all five are unconscious and bleeding."
Caller: "The ride broke loose and five people fell from straight from the sky, 20 feet drop."
Caller: "We got three knocked out completely, one bleeding from the head."
Caller: "They were getting off the ride the guy I guess he was in the booth and he says he didn't. He turned it off and I guess he accidentally turned the button on again and they weren't, they weren't, they weren't in it. They were trying to leave, they weren't strapped anymore."
Caller: "You've got to get someone out here quick, on the Vortex ride. The ride started and it wasn't supposed to. People were still on the ride, it went up in the air and people have fallen down on the platform."
An eyewitness told ABC11 that he had just gotten off the fair ride when it started up again.
"I heard three or four bangs, I mean it sounded like baseballs hitting an aluminum floor," witness Jonathan Stanley said. "I just ran over and I saw the bodies, I mean, I was right at the fence. There was one guy in particular; he was all the way back against the back of the ride. It looked as if he had flown out and maybe hit it and then maybe came down face first."
"They were falling like rain drops," said witness Max Bryn. "A person fell and landed head first on the ground and was just completely knocked unconscious. People were falling everywhere. I'm pretty sure a girl fell right in front of me at least four feet away and just slammed on there. It was terrible."
Bryn had barely left his seat when the Vortex started spinning out of control.
"It was swinging with people still on it with people on the metal platform and it was swinging about 8 feet away from my face," he said.
He and friend had to dive of the way, watching helplessly in the crowd as chaos broke out.
"They were all lying around on the ground pretty sure unconscious, none of them were moving," said Bryn.
Witnesses also said one ride attendant was visibly upset.
"They were hitting the metal board right in front of us where the ride was on, non-stop," Bryn said.
"The ride attendant was crying, just torn up ... was on his knees ... all shaken up," Stanley said.
"I'm sure he thought it had something to do with him and it may or may not, but I'm sure that in that moment he felt guilty," Stone Gully said.
An eyewitness, who went on the Vortex ride Thursday right before the accident, told ABC11 he saw problems and warning signs.
"I probably took it a little lightly that the ride had malfunctioned a little bit before we got on it," said witness Bashir Jabbour.
Jabbour said there were warning signs that something was off on the Vortex ride while waiting to get on. First he said the lights just stopped. Then attendants came over, made some repairs, and the ride resumed.
Jabbour said there were no issues up in the air but there was a problem when he was about to get off the ride. He said his safety harness violently swung up and hit a ride attendant.
"Stumbled backwards a little bit, hit his head. Kind of looked dazed," said Jabbour.
Jabbour got out of his seat and started walking away but not before turning around to check on the hurt attendant.
"As he was admitting the next round of people [he] was still holding his head, looked a little bit off," adds Jabbour.
Joel Gilllie was waiting to get on a neighboring ride at that same time Thursday.
"I heard the people hit that metal floor and it was just real loud...multiple hits and then saw people laying there. People running away because at that point the ride was still kind of moving some," said Gillie.
Gillie's friend is a firefighter stationed at the fairgrounds and he immediately called him to come help.
"It's definitely one of those things that's in the back of your head and I think you'll always think about after you witness something like that," said Gillie.
An eyewitness, who was suppose to be on the Vortex ride just before riders were thrown off, said she was even close enough to see Tutterrow visibly upset.
"It could have been us on that ride," said Manar Joudeh.
Joudeh said she had just ridden the Vortex with her friends and was about to get on, again, when those running the ride stopped them.
"There was four empty seats that we were supposed to get on, but they were like why don't you guys wait until the next ride," said Joudeh.
However, after she saw what happened next, she said she is happy she did wait.
"The people they were just flying off the ride," said Joudeh.
"He [Tutterrow] tried stopping it," she added.
Joudeh said after the ride stopped, she saw Tutterrow fall on his knees crying.
I-Team: Vortex Had Previous Problems
The ABC11 I-Team has been digging into the safety and inspection records of fair rides, and talking with people who say they saw problems with the Vortex ride before Thursday night.
State officials are saying the first time they heard about a problem with the Vortex was on Monday when a restraining bar was stuck. It may not have been the last time.
Given what ABC11 has been hearing from fairgoers, there were numerous accounts of problems with the ride in the days and hours before the accident.
"Turned out to be a switch that was bad," said ride inspector Tom Chambers. "We checked it, repaired it and the ride went back into operation."
Chambers defended the decision to open the Vortex to the ABC11 I-Team after what's called a solenoid switch caused problems with a safety harness on Monday.
Officials won't say if other complaints came in, but that doesn't mean there wasn't cause for them.
A half-dozen emails came into the ABC11 newsroom Friday with people tell us about problems they saw with the ride.
The earliest came on Wednesday, which was the day before the accident.
The ride wasn't working and was evacuated, but as people got off of it, it restarted suddenly. It's an account disturbingly similar to what appears to have happened Thursday night.
Other emails describe problems noticed just hours before the accident. One woman said around 9 p.m. that she saw the ride smoking.
Another told us about a stuck restraint bar that released suddenly, hitting the operator in the head.
A fourth viewer again said they were having problems with the restraint bars.
"The bars on the left seemed to be working but the bars on the right just wouldn't come down," said Ken Vrana.
Vrana said he watched as three ride operators struggled with the restraint bars for 15 minutes. They finally jammed them in place, and started the ride. Vrana says that was 45 minutes before the accident.
"When that thing started acting up, you shut it off and you keep it shut off until it's fixed," said Vrana.
N.C. State Fair officials said they do not train ride operators, the ride companies do, and they just monitor that the operators are paying attention.
"It appears to be an accident and things like this happen," Harrison said shortly after the incident. "We hate it because it is supposed to be a fun time for families."
However during a news conference Friday morning, Harrison said they are treating their investigation as criminal -- as they do every investigation.
He said the investigation is ongoing and will "take time" because they have a lot of witnesses to interview.
Harrison has urged anyone with video of the accident or the aftermath to contact the Wake County Sheriff's Office.
Meanwhile, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has offered his support to the victims and the investigation.
"Our sincere thoughts and prayers are with those injured in last night's State Fair accident and their families," McCrory said in a statement. "The state stands ready to assist in any way we can to help those impacted and ensure the safety of our citizens and fairgoers."
Fair officials said they will be looking at diagnostics and all the safety systems of the ride.
The Department of Labor said the rides are inspected three times a day.
There are two rides named 'Vortex' on the fairgrounds, but fair officials said they are different.
The ride was manufactured by Technical Park International of Italy. The ride is owned by Family Attractions out of Georgia. This is the first time it had been at the N.C. State Fair.
The Amusement Safety Organization lists three incidents involving rider injuries against Family Attractions Amusement between 2004 and 2011.
"Family Attractions Amusement Company, LLC is a family-owned and operated enterprise from Valdosta, Georgia. It has an excellent equipment safety record and has never before experienced an incident with any of its rides like this one. The owners, Dominic and Ruby Macaroni, are devastated by this accident and send their thoughts and prayers to those injured at the North Carolina State Fair," said Joyce Fitzpatrick, spokesperson for Family Attractions.
The company is being represented by attorney Gregory Brown. Brown will only be representing the company.
According to the attorney's website, Brown does not take on criminal cases.
As the fair winds down, fair officials said their thoughts and prayers are with those who were hurt.
"We're feeling for those people injured and we're pretty furious at whoever was responsible," said N.C. State Fair spokesman Brian Long.
While investigators look back on last week's horrific accident, fair officials are looking forward.
"We always evaluate the fair, every year, various aspects...this incident that happened will definitely factor into our discussions," said Long.
It is not the first time an accident involving a ride has happened at the N.C. State Fair.
The most recent one occurred in 2009 when a worker fell while trying to break down the 'Flying Bobs' ride.
In 2004, another workers was hurt by a falling steel beam.
Years earlier in 2002, a worker was killed when he slipped and was hit by the 'Bonzai Ride.'
In 1998, three riders were hurt in an accident on the 'Zyklon' roller coaster. Three cars collided when a wheel bearing on one of the cars seized up. The riders suffered minor injuries in that incident.
The fair is operating on normal schedule. Fair officials said they hope Thursday's "isolated thing" will not impact people enjoying the last weekend of the fair.
"I am confident my grandchildren can ride the rides ... and they will," State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said.
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