AP Enterprise: SC ride inspector issued 1 citation

AP News
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Posted: May 27, 2011 2:18 PM
AP Enterprise: SC ride inspector issued 1 citation

A South Carolina inspector fired after he falsified a report about a children's train ride that crashed, killing a 6-year-old boy, issued only one violation in more than three years of examining amusement park rides, according to an Associated Press review of state records.

The files show Donnie Carrigan did more than 140 inspections of amusement rides around the state from 2008 to 2011 as an employee of South Carolina's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. In that time the 20-year agency veteran issued only one violation.

In 100 ride inspections in only the past two years, other inspectors handed out scores of violations for 38 different rides and denied 10 permits entirely.

Carrigan has not spoken publicly since the March 19 wreck and has not responded to repeated efforts to contact him.

When told of the AP's findings, high-ranking state officials said changes are being made at the licensing department.

"We are taking precautions to make sure that they realize this is not just a check of a box. This is a life," Gov. Nikki Haley said Friday. "It was a senseless situation that shouldn't have happened. But it is also a reminder of what we can do to fix it to make sure that it never happens again."

State labor officials fired Carrigan after he admitted falsifying his inspection of the miniature train ride at Spartanburg's Cleveland Park. Carrigan green-lighted the train for operation days before the derailment that injured 28 people and killed 6-year-old Benji Easler.

Two days after the crash, state officials said Carrigan admitted that even though he had never done a test run of the train because its battery was dead when he arrived, he approved the ride. It opened the following weekend, a week earlier than initially planned, and crashed on its first day in operation this season.

A working phone number for Carrigan could not be found, and agency officials knew of no attorney or spokesman who could speak for him.

Earlier this week, county officials blamed the crash on excessive speed, saying the train was going nearly three times faster than recommended when it rolled off its tracks and into a ditch. Their investigation has been turned over to county prosecutors, who will determine if anyone will be criminally charged.

An attorney for train operator Matt Conrad has said investigators never interviewed his client beyond his statement during an ambulance ride to the hospital in which he said, "I was going too (expletive) fast." Grant Varner has said his client was in shock when he made that statement. Conrad has said he is distraught over the crash, but did not think he was to blame.

The inspection reports obtained by AP under a public records request show that in 2010, Carrigan inspected 36 rides, issuing no violations and denying no permit applications. In 212 other inspections that year, seven other workers gave out 54 violations and denied 10 applications.

Until his firing in 2011, Carrigan had inspected 16 rides _ including the Spartanburg train _ and issued no violations. Ten other state workers inspecting nearly 150 rides issued a total of 38 violations as of March. No denials were issued.

In 2008 and 2009, Carrigan inspected 90 rides and issued one violation, writing up a ride operator for needing to weld go-kart seats more securely to their frames and repair fencing.

Labor chief Catherine Templeton said Friday the agency has stepped up oversight since the crash and now rotates inspectors so they're not always looking at the same rides or amusements.

"We put a number of things in place to ensure that there is oversight." Templeton told the AP. "We really have gone back in to make sure that it's a program with integrity that we can trust to tell the citizens of South Carolina they're safe."

Legislators are looking at ways to strengthen state law governing such inspections. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler introduced a bill that would set new standards for the operation of miniature trains, including requiring a speedometer and a device that regulates the train's speed.

"It's just common sense," said the Gaffney Republican, who pursued the legislation after prompting from the Rev. Dwight Easler, the father of the boy killed in the crash. "It's unfortunate that you must pass a law to mandate common sense."

Lawmakers also want to revise state law limiting how much those injured could seek for medical bills and other expenses. With the legislative session set to end next week, Peeler said lawmakers likely will wait until next year to address a pending bill that would exclude medical expenses from the current $600,000 per-occurrence liability cap that protects the government from paying unlimited damages.

The Cleveland Park train has been closed since the crash, and Templeton said county officials have not asked for it to be re-inspected so it can reopen. On Friday, state officials cleared a similar ride in Simpsonville to begin operating just before the Memorial Day weekend.

One family injured in the crash has sued, accusing county officials of not adequately supervising the train operator or inspecting the park's tracks and alleging that state officials failed in their train inspection.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MegKinnardAP