A trip to a neighborhood church fair left a Metairie woman and her 8-year-old son dizzy and concerned about safety after the spinning carnival ride they were on couldn't’t stop.
The incident was never reported to the Louisiana State Fire Marshal, the agency responsible for the regulation of amusement rides, but current state law doesn’t mandate reporting of “near-miss” incidents by ride owners.
When Nicole Lombardi and her 8-year-old son stepped into the Gravitron ride at the Cochon de Lait Fair in October, they hoped to get stuck to the wall, not stuck on the ride.
“Believe it or not, I wasn't gonna get on the ride at first. I had just woken up from a nap and I was like, mmm, I'm still kind of tired,” Lombardi said.
The Gravitron looks like a large bowl and spins, using centrifugal force to make riders “weightless”, stuck to the walls of the ride.
“Everybody likes that heart pumping thriving feel,” Lombardi continued, “adrenaline junkies.”
She and her son enjoyed the ride, losing gravity, going horizontally the first time it spun around.
“My son was sideways and everything. He did not have his feet on the ground on the ride. You know, having a ball at the time,” she said.
When the ride started to slow, their feet firmly back on the ground, the handful of people on board made their way toward the exit.
“The gentleman was trying to slow the ride down. He opened the door about a foot and as he's looking for the platform to let us off the ride and stop, I notice that the speed was picking up,” Lombardi said.
The ride started going spinning again at full speed and everyone, once again, started getting stuck to the walls. Lombardi said she thought the ride operator was playing a joke on the teenage boys who were also on the ride, making it spin again to make them laugh.
But a few minutes into the ride, Lombardi realized something was wrong.
“I had my backpack in front of me and I was like, oh my God, I've gotta get my phone out some kind of way,” she said.
Once her phone was freed from her backpack, she dialed 911.
A recording of that call, obtained through a public records request, sheds light on Lombardi’s state of mind.
“Hey, listen! We're at the St. Edward’s fair and we need some help. They can't stop the Gravitron ride,” she tells the 911 operator.
No one was hurt, but they left with heads spinning.
My heart's racing right now thinking how much I was shaking when we got off the ride,” she said in the interview.
While Lombardi called 911, the incident was never reported to the state fire marshal.
“Since I've been fire marshal, we've never had a ride fail. Where you have a car come off a ride and that kind of thing,” said Butch Browning, La. Fire Marshal.
Each carnival ride must be registered with the state of Louisiana, but current state law only requires the ride owners to report when someone is injured. "Near-misses," like Lombardi's, only get investigated when someone calls the fire marshal to complain, something he encourages.
The Gravitron passed inspection
State records show, in the past three years, the fire marshal’s office has investigated eight incidents ranging from near-misses to a child shocked getting off a merry-go-round ride, to broken bones and serious injuries sustained by adults and children when they fell out of rides.
But the fire marshal doesn’t investigate human error.
“Our main focus is, did something on the ride fail,” Browning said.
MS Delta Amusements, LLC out of Mississippi owns the Gravitron that wouldn't stop spinning with Lombardi on it.
The company didn't return our calls or emails seeking comment.
Inspection records show the Gravitron ride did meet national safety standards and pass its annual mechanical inspection back in February.
“It's a pretty intricate inspection. It's not like a set up where you just, you set it up and you make sure everything's working. They go through every piece. They take things apart,” Browning said.
The rides are required to pass an inspection by a National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, or NAARSO, every year in order to operate in Louisiana.
Browning said that’s the national standard, doing it once a year.
The Gravitron passed inspection in February and Lombardi's near-miss didn't happen until October.
Since passing inspection MS Delta has used the Gravitron at two other fairs in Louisiana, and video on their Facebook page indicates it has been used at other fairs throughout Mississippi.
A daily inspection checklist appears to show the Gravitron was under “maintenance/construction” for three days, two weeks before the Cochon de Lait Fair.
“Basic repairs, they keep a log. And that log is audited at that inspection when we do a set up,” Browning said.
In the case of MS Delta’s Gravitron, the company followed Louisiana law, reporting that maintenance was done on the ride, but the extent of that maintenance or "construction" is unclear.
The Gravitron was built in 1984, 33 years ago. Workers could have rebuilt the entire ride two weeks before the Cochon de Lait Fair and no additional mechanical inspection would be required.
In fact, the week after the Gravitron was down for maintenance, MS Delta records shows it ran at the Seafood Festival at Divine Mercy parish in Kenner.
State records don't indicate it had problems running then, but again, the records don't contain Lombardi's incident either.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans, which oversees St. Edwards, looked into the incident with the Gravitron at the fair.
“St. Edwards fair committee works diligently with civic officials to ensure safety of all fair attractions including carnival rides onsite. The incident reported was investigated thoroughly, and the ride was later taken out of service out of an abundance of caution. We are grateful that we were able to respond quickly and effectively to this incident and that no one was hurt. We always hope and pray that accidents do not happen,” the Archdiocese said in a statement.
Lombardi said the ride was shut down when she returned to the fair the following night.
She can laugh about it now, but just talking about it, about the fear that people would start to vomit or pass out, made her heart start racing during the interview.
“I was shaking. I felt like a wet noodle and my son who was with me, he's 8, he was just bawling crying,” Lombardi said.
It's a near-miss missing from the state’s records. A new law, with higher fines and greater authority for the fire marshal, goes into effect next year.
Right now, Browning’s office is writing the administrative rules that, among other things, will require owners to define the extent of ride maintenance and to report injuries and accidents.
Lombardi says she's hoping those new regulations stick.