Calaveras fair ride collapse: 'It was complete chaos'

Shock and disappointment spread throughout the Mother Lode on Saturday as families of the 23 people injured in a carnival ride collapse at the Calaveras County Fair a night earlier asked the simple question: How could this have happened?

Mike and Tricia Schlueter of Murphys were sitting on the fairground lawn, eating hot dogs, waiting for the monster truck rally, when they heard a loud crash.

"I thought it was related to the trucks," Mike Schlueter said by phone Saturday.

The Schlueters' 9-year-old son came running.

"Mom! Mom! The swings collapsed and Brandon is really hurt," Tricia Schlueter remembers her son screaming. "I flipped a gasket and started running. It was complete chaos. Dust was everywhere."

Brandon Schlueter and his friend Elijah Stalder, both 13, were on the Yo-Yo when it collapsed. The large, swing-style ride lifts the swing seats into the air on long chains and spins in a circle.

"I got on the ride and sat in the back with my friend," Brandon said. "It was doing OK, but bouncing up and down a little, then it took us up in the air. We went around twice, then it dropped us to the ground and dragged us, then brought us off the ground again all tangled. There was all this noise. People were screaming and then I don't know. ... After it dragged us for another minute, it just stopped. There was a bunch of dust everywhere."

Road rash took the skin off Brandon's leg, and both arms are bruised and welted from the chains that wrapped around him in the tangle, his mother said. He has bruises on his forehead from where an empty swing seat struck him, she said. His friend Elijah is covered in welts and bruises, but isn't hurt quite as badly and said he owes that to his buddy.

"Brandon tried to pull swings away from me," Elijah said. "He saved me."

All of the hospitalized victims had been released by Saturday, except for a 12-year-old girl listed in good condition at University of California Medical Center in Sacramento and a 14-year-old girl listed in stable condition at Modesto's Memorial Medical Center, according to Sgt. Dave Seawell of the Calaveras County Sheriff's Department.

It was the first accident of its kind since the annual fair began about 80 years ago, said Ray Malerbi, the fair's chief executive officer.

"This was a traumatic accident," he said. "It wasn't something that any of us expected. Our first concern is for the people that were hurt."

Inspectors from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration began arriving late Friday and early Saturday to investigate the accident and inspect all the carnival rides, said Paul Feist, assistant secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, which oversees OSHA.

All of the rides were shut down after the accident, but the milder "kiddie" rides reopened during the day Saturday, Malerbi said. He had hoped that all other rides, except for the damaged Yo-Yo, could be cleared by inspectors to reopen Saturday evening. However, that did not happen.

Laurie Giannini, the fair's facility marketing director, said Saturday night she was hopeful all rides would be up and running by today, the fair's last day.

Feist said the inspectors were interviewing witnesses and disassembling the Yo-Yo to figure out what happened.

The ride has a series of metal arms extending from a rotating hub. A chair is attached to the end of each arm by a chain, and the arms and chairs swing outward as the hub rotates and picks up speed.

An initial investigation suggests that a mechanical failure in the machine's hub disrupted its normal rotation, causing the chairs to collide with one an- other and the chains to become tangled, Feist said. The investigation was expected to take several weeks or possibly months.

OSHA issued a permit for the ride after the machine passed its annual inspection last year, Feist said. The next inspection was scheduled to take place in a couple of weeks.

The carnival rides, including the Yo-Yo, are owned and oper-ated by Oroville-based Midway of Fun, which never has been cited by state safety inspectors, said company owner Harry Mason.

"In 31 years in the business, I have never seen anything like this before. This is just abso- lutely sickening to me," Mason said. "My concern first and foremost is the children. My children ride my rides."

It's not the first accident in the region on a ride operated by the company.

In 2002, a Keyes boy suffered fractured wrists and two other boys had minor injuries after being thrown 5 feet from a ride at the Stanislaus County Fair in Turlock after an operator began it prematurely.

It was the first, and last, time the fair contracted with Midway of Fun, according to fair spokeswoman Penny Rorex.

She said several things played into the nonrenewal, and "certainly the accident was one of them."

"When you look at a carnival provider, you look at many things, and first and foremost is safety," she said.

Stanislaus fair officials switched operators to Fairfield-based Butler Amusements Inc., and have been with them since.

In 2006, a 6-year-old Stockton boy plunged 90 feet to his death from the top of a Ferris wheel run by Butler at the San Joaquin County Fair. Investigators determined the boy tried to climb out of his seat.

Rorex said fair officials examined the circumstances that contributed to that accident, along with the reports, and were completely satisfied with Butler.

"Whether you're attending a fair or putting it on, most of us are parents and you're always concerned about fair safety."

Rorex said the Stanislaus fair doesn't have a Yo-Yo, but does have a similar ride called the Flying Swinger. Instead of being attached to arms that come out of the center, the swings of the Flying Swinger are attached to the roof of the ride. Rorex said there's never been a problem.

Immediately after Friday's accident, Calaveras County sheriff's deputies surrounded the collapsed ride and tried to keep people from running after their children, Tricia Schlueter said. Emergency workers pulled the injured from the wreck.

"A sheriff (deputy) had my arm and I broke away and I just saw children scattered all over the ground," Tricia Schlueter said. "Brandon was on an ATV. They got him out."

Brandon and his friend Elijah were cleared of major injuries at Mark Twain St. Joseph's Hospital in San Andreas, she said.

"I think, from people I talked to, they're shocked and disappointed," said Seawell, of the Calaveras County Sheriff's Department. "A lot of parents are re-evaluating putting their kids on these rides."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at or 578-2391.