Pennsylvania has more amusement park rides than any other state, with 9,300 registered rides. And its parks are unmatched in safety, Gov. Tom Corbett said in a June news release, because of the state’s rigorous ride-inspection program.
But a PublicSource investigation shows the state agency that oversees amusement parks doesn’t track the safety inspection reports that parks are required by law to file each month they are open.
State records show more than half of Pennsylvania’s permanent parks and water parks did not turn in all of their 2012 report – affidavits in which certified inspectors attest that they’ve performed the inspections required by law. The agency had no reports at all for 12 of the state’s 117 permanent parks and water parks PublicSource analyzed.
Among the parks in the data are large amusement parks, such as Hersheypark with 80 rides, and smaller parks like The Fun Station in Gouldsboro, with just three, according to 2012 state registrations. Records show Hersheypark filed all its required reports last year. The Fun Station, in the Poconos, did not file any, according to records provided in response to a Right-To-Know request.
The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards oversees the parks. Walter Remmert, who has been director of the bureau since 2011, was given a list of parks for which the bureau had no inspection reports in 2012. He said he didn’t know about the missing reports until PublicSource informed him.
The agency’s enforcement actions are scant. Even parks that have repeatedly failed to turn in safety inspection reports seldom pay fines, and rides are rarely shut down.
In 2011, a bureau official wrote that Scranton’s Sno Cove water park in Sno Mountain ski resort had “operated all of last year with NO INSPECTIONS.”
Joe Filoromo, supervisor of the bureau’s Amusement Ride Safety Division, wrote in an internal email that Sno Cove’s failure to inspect was “among the most blatant of violations” and should receive a “serious fine immediately.”
No fine was issued.
Laura Woodburn, a spokeswoman with the nonprofit National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, said it’s the job of the regulators to enforce the laws. (Woodburn is also director of ride operations for Hersheypark, but does not speak on behalf of the park.)
“It’s up to the police officers to make sure we’re following the rules,” she said. “There has to be a body that provides accountability.”
Several former state inspectors said the Pennsylvania inspection program and enforcement of the law isn’t what it once was.
“It was a model program. It is a laughingstock now,” said Thomas Abod, a former state inspector who worked for the bureau and was furloughed in 2009. It could be great once again, he said, if properly run.
State Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said that if even a few parks can get through a season without filing a single safety report, the bureau needs a better system.
“Someone ought to be investigating,” Maher said. “I intend to make inquiries promptly.”
Death in Texas
While amusement rides thrill many fans and bring tourism dollars to the state, they can be dangerous – and sometimes deadly.
The public was reminded of that in July, when Rosy Esparza, 52, plunged to her death in front of family members after falling out of a 14-story roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas. Six Flags, along with local police, is conducting an investigation into the death. The Texas Department of Insurance, which regulates the industry in Texas, requires a safety inspection by parks just once a year.
That death has renewed calls for federal regulation of amusement park rides. U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., tried but failed as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to get a bill passed for a federal agency, such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, to oversee amusement parks.
“A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour,” Markey said in a statement. “This is a mistake.”
However, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, wrote: “Pennsylvania’s amusement ride safety program has a longstanding reputation for being one of the best and safest in the nation.”
The department “takes seriously its charge to protect the public,” the spokeswoman, Nicole Bucher, wrote in an email.
The bureau declined to answer many of PublicSource’s questions, saying that the bureau’s method of keeping track of inspections and accidents was complicated. When PublicSource reporters offered to travel from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to talk with bureau officials, they did not respond.
Gov. Corbett, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story, saying the Department of Agriculture speaks for him on the issue.
The last death on a Pennsylvania amusement ride, according to the bureau, occurred in September 2001. Seven-year-old Matthew Allen Potter of York Township, was on a roller coaster at the York Fair when the ride stopped suddenly and Potter was thrown forward. He died of his injuries later that night.
By law, carnivals and fairs must file inspection reports every time rides are set up, instead of every 30 days, as required for permanent and water parks.
More than 1,000 accidents were reported to the state in the last five years. The severity of the accidents is difficult to determine from the reports. Pennsylvania law requires amusement park owners to file reports of serious injuries – those that require medical attention or result in hospitalization or death.
Those injuries included concussions, a broken pelvis, two electric shocks, a broken vertebra and broken ribs.
A repeat offender
Scranton’s troubled Sno Cove is one example of a park that has not regularly reported its inspections or serious accidents to the state. (Sno Cove went bankrupt in 2012 and was purchased by Montage Mountain in 2013.)
Anthony Griffith and his mother are suing Sno Cove’s owner for damages for multiple injuries after the then 12-year-old was injured in a water slide accident in 2011, according to Lackawanna County court records. The Griffith family did not respond to requests for an interview.
Regina Prussack said that she, too, was injured at Sno Cove.
Prussack, who is unemployed and on Social Security disability, took her two kids to Sno Cove in July 2011. With tickets at about $20 each, her pocketbook took a hit. She expected to watch her kids splash in the water, washing away their hard lives for a few hours.
As she was getting onto the chair lift with her children, she asked the ride attendant not to start the ride until she was ready.
But the ride attendant started the ride anyway, and Prussack fell 15 feet, she said.
“People screamed and told them to stop the ride,” Prussack said. “I didn’t have enough time to get the bar down.”
She and a friend went to the park twice and called multiple times asking for an accident report, but the park did not respond.
There was no record of the accident in the documents the bureau released to PublicSource. Nor did the bureau know the chair lift was being used as a ride and wasn’t registered until PublicSource asked about it.
The chair lift was not shut down, according to bureau officials.
Montage Mountain employees did not respond to PublicSource’s email messages or phone calls requesting comment for this story. Attempts to reach Sno Cove’s previous president, Denis Carlson, were unsuccessful.
Today, Prussack said she suffers from a painful neck condition caused by the accident. She has popped as many as five oxycodone pills, a powerful painkiller, a day. She walks with a claw-like, four-pronged cane. She’s 41.
“I can’t do anything with my kids anymore,” Prussack said.
The bureau responds
After PublicSource asked the bureau about a number of parks that turned in no inspection reports last year, Remmert and his staff contacted the parks. Some of the parks then sent reports dated 2012 to the bureau. The bureau time-stamped the reports July 2013 and emailed them to PublicSource.
Bucher, an agriculture department spokeswoman, said the inspection reports could have initially been lost in the mail, faxed to the wrong number or misplaced. It would be unfair to penalize the parks, she said, because they had done the inspection reports during 2012.
There is no way for PublicSource to tell whether the inspection reports were completed last year or on the day they were sent to the bureau in July.
Remmert did not respond directly to whether filing inspection reports more than a year later is legal. By law, the reports are to be filed with the state within 48 hours of the inspection.
The parks that did not submit inspection reports when officials called them in July were given warnings, Bucher wrote in an email.
Reporters called all 12 parks that had no inspection reports. Most said they had filed them in 2012 with the state, though the bureau had no record of them.
Leonard Adams, owner of Adams Amusements at Conneaut Lake’s amusement park, said he completed all inspection reports for 2012 and mailed them in. However, he believes the state never received them because of a mailing error.
“It makes me look bad, but I did everything the law said to do,” he said, adding that he never received notification from the bureau last year about his missing inspection reports.
Others said they, too, received no notification of missing reports for 2012.
Abod, a former state inspector, said it’s the job of the state inspectors to make sure owners are properly filing inspection reports with the bureau.
“It’s not right. The places should be shut down” when they don’t file, Abod said. “They know it.”
Four inspectors for the state
It’s the job of private safety inspectors to check things like a ride’s brakes, latches, seat covers and seat belts every 30 days. They must then sign an affidavit, sent to the bureau, that attests to that inspection.
The private inspectors must be certified by the state and can be a park’s owner, an employee or an outsider hired by the owner.
In addition, ride operators must perform daily inspections and keep a log on site that can be accessed by state officials.
But it’s the bureau and its state inspectors who enforce the law. They do on-site inspections and have the power to issue warnings, require repairs and shut down rides.
Abod knows what it’s like to set up and break down amusement rides in the rain, heat and snow.
He traveled the state for about five years, making sure the parks followed the law, which included checking that inspection reports were up to date in Harrisburg.
He wasn’t surprised to hear the state was missing inspection reports from parks.
“Yeah, that’s the state,” said Abod, laughing. “Nobody is checking on them.”
Ride owners try to get away with things all of the time, Abod said.
It was typical for a park to complain when a state inspector shut down a ride or issued a fine, former inspectors said. Sometimes, a fine was reduced or eliminated.
Abod once discovered an indoor inflatable ride in Philadelphia running on a gas-powered generator. The generator was emitting fumes and likely poisoning riders. If he hadn’t shut it down, who knows what could have happened? he asked.
“You know what’s going on. You gotta catch them,” Abod said. “And it’s probably worse than ever now.”
That’s because in 2009, there were seven state inspectors. Now there are only four to police thousands of rides.
What’s the answer?
Pennsylvania’s got some of the best state inspectors in the country, Abod said.
But is it possible to effectively police the industry with four state inspectors?
“There’s only one guy (west) of the Susquehanna River to take care of this whole area,” said Rich Yeagley, another former state inspector.
Several former state inspectors said the reputation of the bureau to follow up and enforce the law has been eroding for years. They asked that their names not be used because some of them still work in the industry.
Maher, the state legislator, said the solution is simple: The bureau needs to track who’s following the law and who is not.
But others disagree. The only way to ensure safety at any amusement parks – including Pennsylvania’s – is federal oversight, said Justin Reiff, who works for a Philadelphia law firm that handles many amusement-park injury cases.
“The fact that parks aren’t submitting affidavits, that’s a problem,” he said. “Because it shows the state is not doing its job in overseeing the amusement parks.”
“What’s it going to take – a Texas?” he asked. “Does this state need a roller-coaster death to wake everybody up?”
PublicSource is an independent investigative news organization that collaborates with newspapers and radio stations throughout Pennsylvania. Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or email@example.com.