Hold on tight: How safe are Irish funfair rides?
Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30
Four people were seriously injured when a rollercoaster crashed at Alton Towers this June. But how well regulated is the industry in Ireland?
It was a sunny June afternoon.
Leah Washington (17) and her boyfriend Joe Pugh were having the time of their lives. But joy turned to horror as a roller-coaster train in which they were riding crashed into an empty carriage on the track at the popular Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire.
Leah and Joe, as well as two others, were rushed to hospital, and days later Leah had to have a leg amputated from the knee down.
The Barnsley teenager is currently recovering from her ordeal, but the theme park and fairground rides industry in the UK is now under the spotlight.
And so what of the industry here? Could an incident such as that which happened in Alton Towers possibly occur in Ireland, and how regulated is the sector?
"When you look at what is required from amusement-park providers in the Republic, it's clear that we have perhaps the safest such industry in Europe," explains Gerry Curry, vice-chairman of the Irish Showmen's Guild.
"We're legally obliged to have certificates for every single ride we offer and must provide up-to-date documentation when required to the government inspectors and local authority councils."
The guild represents 80 mobile amusement park operators, mainly families, who travel the country bringing their flashing lights and high-speed rides with them. 'The Merries', as are they are known in Cork, have been part and parcel of festival fun across the country for years.
This week I travelled to Tayto Park in Meath to see how vital safety monitoring is to them and also dropped in on Don Bird in Killarney. For 77 years Birds Amusements have been churning stomachs, making legs wobbly and delighting children across Ireland.
Both operations are meticulous on safety. "The government requirements are considered strict but I would see them as the very least we should be doing.
''We do all we can to make sure families who visit our amusements have nothing to worry about in terms of safety," says Don.
But, inevitably, given the huge number of fairground rides taken in Ireland each year, there are isolated accidents. In October 2011, a 31-year-old woman from Roscommon fell from a 'Tip Top' ride - a machine which rotates a number of gondolas at speed while tilted upwards, with occupants held in by a bar at their waist - outside the O2 arena in Dublin.
She had just attended a Britney Spears concert at the venue and had been drinking earlier in the evening. The post-mortem found that Siobhan Healy died as a result of multiple traumatic injuries sustained in the fall.
A jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure and recommended that, regardless of a person's alcohol level, the safety of any passenger on a fairground ride should be "assured".
And in 1996, 25-year-old Marese Egan was killed and her four-year-old daughter seriously injured when a chair on a funfair ride snapped from its moorings in Borrisokane, Co Tipperary.
The reality, though, is that incidents and accidents in fairgrounds across Ireland are few and far between.
"It's a sign of how closely regulated the industry is that we are not handling one single case at the moment in connection with fairgrounds," said Kevin McIlhenny, head of litigation at Gibson and Associates solicitors based in Letterkenny and Dublin. The firm is one of the few in Ireland which offers a focused service on fairground accidents and injuries.
Meanwhile, in Ashbourne, Co Meath, I'm painting the air blue as 'The Rotator' spins me skywards. One of five such rides in the world, a giant pendulum rotates 360 degrees with passengers rotating as they literally go head over heels.
On the day I visit, the new €8m Cú Chulainn Coaster is closed as a second train is being added to Europe's largest wooden roller-coaster. Tayto Park manager Charles Coyle explains how much focus and time is spent on maintenance and safety checks in the park.
"We have a set list of things that have to be done every morning. Maintenance crews will walk the coaster track for example.
''Two lads set out in opposite directions making sure there is no storm debris lying on it and then once all items on the safety checklist are ticked off, we will run an empty train a few times just to make sure it goes smoothly," he says.
The maintenance crews at Tayto Park include welders, carpenters, mechanics and labourers as well as personnel trained in understanding the operations of each specific ride.
And then there's an ingenious back-up layer of protection that's new to me.
"When we buy a new ride, technicians come to make sure it's installed correctly and to train operators. It will come with its own operations and maintenance manual.
''We are also hooked-up to the manufacturers, whether they be in Italy, Germany or America, and they monitor our devices on a daily basis. If there are any minor problems, they receive a message electronically and can advise us on what to do."
Charles admits the accident at Alton Towers will impact on the industry here, too. "Our insurance is already expensive, and I'm sure it will only go up after the sad incident in Alton Towers," he says.
Since 2003, all those operating funfair equipment in the Republic of Ireland are compelled by law to have their machinery tested and certified by a specific engineer as nominated by the Department of the Environment.
Jeff Johnson is Ireland's leading inspector of fairground rides and he is also responsible for certifying them for use after close examination. He told me what steps are taken to ensure a piece of fairground equipment is safe to use.
"A safety certificate is supplied to the funfair operator to confirm that… a thorough examination was carried out on the amusement device (in question) with due regard to structural, electrical and mechanical safety," said Johnson.
Certificates are valid for a year, after which time the theme park or fairground operator needs to re-apply. If modifications are made to the ride or equipment in the course of that year, then inspectors need to examine and approve the upgraded works and documentation.
While inspectors do carry out on-the-spot checks on equipment on an ad hoc basis, the number of times operators are visited can vary widely.
In the case of the travelling bazaar, operators need to supply all up-to-date certificates to the local authority two days before opening.
Officials will check that the certificates are in order and apply to the exact machinery on site. Once happy that all is in order, they then allow the operator to get their customers to 'roll up, roll up'.
Johnson explains why the Republic of Ireland's legal stance on amusement equipment is significantly more stringent than in the UK.
"Even though the regulations in Northern Ireland and the UK require that funfair equipment be certified, inspections are voluntary - where as in the Republic, it is law that they are certified," he told Review.
In Killarney town centre, Don Bird and his staff are getting ready to open later in the evening. He is the third generation of Bird in this business, it's in his blood.
"Like many other operators it's been a family business for generations. The family structure of the industry in Ireland means we all know each other and understand how important it is that we all maintain the highest of safety standards because an incident at one fair will have an impact on others," he says.
"You see the attractions have evolved, now the rides are faster, they're higher and so the codes of practice have become a lot more stringent, and rightly so.
''Safety is the cornerstone of our business. Record-keeping is now a huge part of what we do.
''We're obliged to keep copies of our maintenance for 10 years, like a log book on a car, so if the equipment is ever sold on, then those records have to come with it."
Not only do the individual rides need certificates and unique reference numbers, but each and every nut, bolt and component of a funfair ride in Ireland has a unique number to help with both maintenance and inspection.
"You know we were hit so hard by the economic downturn," says Don.
"We saw turnover fall by upwards of 50pc and then had three awful summers in a row with bad weather.
''Disposable income plummeted and we lost a lot of our young people to emigration who would traditionally have used fairgrounds during the summer.
"We're trying to do our best and believe me, we know better than anyone else, how utterly vital it is that safety is the number-one priority in this game."
Falling coconuts more likely to harm than rides
It will come as little comfort to those whose loved ones have been hurt or died on a funfair ride, but there's more chance of being killed by a falling coconut than on an amusement ride.
Scientists have calculated that the chances of being killed as a result of a fairground accident is 300 million to one - though those in the industry say the odds are actually even higher. Interestingly, that's the same odds as dying from a shark attack.
It's estimated that falling coconuts kill around 150 people every year. Tumbling from a height of 80 feet, they can build up an impact speed of 50mph.
The odds on dying as a result of an plane crash are calculated at 11 million to one; being struck by lightning 10 million to one; in a terrorist attack at 9.3 million to one; and in a car accident 8,000/1.