Three people were injured after falling from the Ferris wheel at the Port Townsend Rhododendron Festival on Thursday. (Cydney McFarland/Peninsula Daily News)

Ferris wheel studied after three fall from gondola

PORT TOWNSEND — A Ferris wheel from which three people fell some 15 feet will be examined for mechanical flaws, said the president of Funtastic Traveling Shows, who added Saturday that company officials suspect that one of the riders may have been responsible for the fall from the gondola Thursday.

Ron Burback, president of Funtastic, said Saturday afternoon the Ferris wheel would be packed up that night from Memorial Field in Port Townsend and shipped to the company’s home office in Portland, Ore.

“We have to bring it back, do an analysis of the machine and have it reinspected by a third-party inspector,” Burback said, adding that the cause of the fall had not been determined yet.

Susan “Shawn” Swartwood, 59, was severely injured and Crystal Groth, 47, and Mikhail Groth Swartwood, 7, were also hurt when they fell from a gondola that flipped on the ride known as the Phoenix Wheel at about 5:45 p.m. Thursday, the first day the carnival opened for the Port Townsend Rhododendron Festival.

Burback laid out three possibilities that could explain the fall: operator error, mechanical malfunction or rider error.

“According to eyewitnesses on the ground, we tend to believe it’s possible that one of the occupants was standing up” in the gondola, Burback said Saturday.

If so, that could cause it to flip, he said. “A sign inside the gondola says ‘Do not stand at any time,’” he said.

“It’s terrible,” he said of the fall, “regardless of who is at fault.”

Swartwood is improving at Harborview Medical Center, said Susan Gregg, Harborview spokeswoman. Swartwood was airlifted to the Seattle hospital with multiple fractures and a head injury, said Keppie Keplinger, public information officer for the Port Townsend Police Department.

Swartwood was moved from intensive care to acute care Friday but was returned to intensive care Saturday, according to Gregg. Gregg said the move was to monitor a non-life-threatening issue.

Groth and Mikhail were discharged from Jefferson Healthcare on Thursday night, according to the Port Townsend Police Department, which is investigating the fall.

Burback expects the company’s analysis to take about a week but said the final findings will come from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“We’re heavily regulated,” he said, adding that amusement rides are overseen by federal, state and local entities.

Burback expects to see a report from the Port Townsend Police Department sometime this week.

A 30-year-old man in the basket below the one that flipped was clipped by one of the falling people. He declined medical treatment Thursday, Keplinger said.

Those remaining on the Ferris wheel were evacuated after the fall. Among them were Rhody Festival Princess Taylor Tracer and Queen Lauren Montgomery, as well as the sons of the president and vice president of the Rhody Festival.

“We were standing right there, and our sons and two of our royalty were on the ride,” said Brandi Hamon, vice president of the Rhody Festival. “The very first thing I thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, is this happening?’”

Hamon’s son, Nick, a senior at Port Townsend High School, said it took half an hour to get down from the ride.

“It felt like five hours,” said Debbie LaFollete, president of the Rhody Festival. Her first-grade son, Levi, also was stuck on the ride.

First responders had to move the three injured people and then the broken cart had to be flipped over and tied down before other riders could be evacuated, LaFollete said.

“I wanted them to bring in the ladder truck,” Hamon said. “I didn’t want them to move the ride.”

The ride was inspected Friday by Richard Spromberg, who is certified by state Labor &Industries but works for Funtastic, according to Matthew Erlich, spokesman for L&I.

Also at the carnival checking rides Friday were representatives of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Funtastic’s insurance company, Hamon said.

After the fall, L&I revoked Funtastic’s operating permit for the Ferris wheel. All other rides at the carnival are open.

Hamon said Spromberg’s report said all 14 rides seemed fine. There was some damage to the cart that flipped. No debris was found, according to the report, Hamon said.

L&I will not issue an operating permit for the ride until it is cleared by a third-party inspector, Erlich said, adding that Funtastic is responsible for bringing in a third-party inspector from L&I’s list of certified inspectors.

“They have every reason to do this as fast as possible,” Erlich said, “but really it’s up to them to call in a third party.”

The Phoenix Wheel was permitted by L&I to operate in the state of Washington after its annual inspection in September and was due for its next routine inspection in October.

Funtastic has been permitted by L&I since 1987. Two other incidents have been reported, according to Erlich.

In September 2011 at the Puyallup Fair, four riders were evacuated from the KerSplash Ride because of a mechanical issue. There were no injuries.

In April 2009 at the Spring Fair in Puyallup, a Lolli Swing operated by Funtastic toppled over, injuring 12 people. None of the injuries was life-threatening, according to the Sky Valley Chronicle of East Snohomish County.

Erlich said parents should look for the bright-yellow 2017 operating permit before they allow their children on any rides. The permit is usually displayed near the ride operator.

They should also pay attention to see whether the ride operators are enforcing height restrictions and safety belt policies.

“Annual inspections are just safeguards,” Erlich said.

LaFollete and Harmon in an emailed statement thanked volunteers and employees who “stepped up out of the crowd to make sure the victims were attended to and the incident was controlled.

“This was a tragic event, and our thoughts and prayers are with all involved,” they said.

The rest of the Rhody Festival, which is in its grand finale weekend, has gone on as planned without the Ferris wheel.

“Today’s been really great,” Hamon said Friday. “Obviously we had an incident, but it seems like people are moving past it.”

Both Hamon and LaFollete said they have experienced much well-wishing from the community for the family as well as for the Rhody Festival.

“We have a really supportive community,” LaFollete said. “We’re blessed to live in this community where people really care about each other.”

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at cmcfarland@peninsuladailynews.com.

Executive Editor Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3530 or at lleach@peninsuladailynews.com.