Carnival Electrocution Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

Monsters of the Midway

The electrocution of a toddler at a Kansas carnival offers a sobering reminder of the importance of proper bonding and grounding at outdoor installations.

Just 15 months old, Pressley Bartonek was too small to play in the inflatable bounce house at the Evans United Carnival in Wichita, Kan., on May 12, 2017. So while her mother and older sister jumped inside, the toddler watched from behind a fence that surrounded the attraction. As she gripped the barrier, though, her eyes widened and her body went rigid. Mere seconds passed before her father was able to pull her free of the electrified fence — which investigators would later determine had come into contact with an uninsulated but energized portable light pole — but it was too late. Though Bartonek was revived at the scene, she died six days later.

The Wichita Police Department declared Bartonek’s death accidental and declined to open a criminal investigation. But her electrocution bears a strong resemblance to what happened to a young boy 14 years earlier in Painesville, Ohio. Both incidents offer a sobering reminder of the importance of safe wiring practices and thorough inspections at carnivals and other transitory installations.

A parent’s worst nightmare

At about 10 p.m. on Aug. 13, 2003, the crowds at the Lake County Fair were thinning out. Among those still at this annual event 30 minutes northeast of Cleveland were eight-year-old Greyson Yoe and his father, who’d spent the last three hours together bouncing from attraction to attraction. On their way out of the midway, the boy insisted on taking a spin on a bumper car ride called the Scooter. The elder Yoe relented. It was supposed to be a fun capper to the night, but within seconds of joining the children queued up alongside a metal handrail outside the attraction, Yoe called for help and slumped to his knees.

By the time paramedics arrived, the boy was unresponsive. Although they were able to revive him after 25 minutes of resuscitation efforts, he never regained consciousness and died three weeks later. The cause of death: electrocution.

While the Wichita Police Department took less than one month to rule out criminal negligence in the Pressley Bartonek case, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office took a much more deliberate approach to unraveling how Yoe died. And from the start, the investigation centered on Nicholas Rock. Eighty years old at the time, Rock had done electrical work for the Lake County Fair Board for most of his adult life — despite the fact he wasn’t a certified electrician.

Chief among Rock’s responsibilities for the fair was hooking up the rides. Most of the attractions used temporary power, but the bumper cars were near an animal paddock full of livestock that could be agitated by a generator’s exhaust and noise. At the instruction of the representatives of the ride, Rock climbed into a bucket truck and tied the Scooter’s power cable directly into the 3-wire distribution system at the top of a nearby utility pole. (Even a Lake County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant charged with investigating the incident recognized the problem while standing on the ground below.) With the ride representatives’ assurance that the Scooter was independently grounded via an 8-foot copper rod that ran through its frame — and his mistaken belief the neutral line would carry any fault to the fuses on a nearby transformer — Rock left the cable’s green ground wire disconnected at the top of the pole. 

Not only that, in violation of NEC Sec. 525.21(A), Rock failed to provide a main power disconnect for the ride. Four boxes were affixed to the base of the utility pole in question, but each was sized for a 100A fuse. According to court documents, the Scooter “required 157A,” so because he couldn’t replace these 100A fuses with a 200A fuse, he decided it wasn’t feasible or necessary to install a new disconnect box.

Ralph Dolence was on-site within 24 hours of Yoe’s electrocution and was one of the first to review Rock’s work. With nearly 20 years of forensic investigation experience under his belt at the time, he didn’t need long to find the electrician’s mistakes. “Anyone qualified to be a licensed electrician or licensed electrical inspector takes one look at that setup and sees a variety of code violations,” Dolence told The Cleveland News-Herald in 2008. “It was an accident waiting to happen.” (Dolence did not respond to multiple requests from EC&M to discuss the case.)

As noted in court documents, Dolence stated that if Rock would have connected the “free-hanging” green ground wire at the top of the pole to the ground rod at the base of the utility pole, it would have provided grounding, but not in compliance with standards. Or, barring that, he could have installed a new disconnect box capable of holding the appropriate-sized fuse.

Finding the origin of the fault current, though, would require a little more detective work. 

Safety first

When Bryan Creason hears about an accident at a carnival, he asks himself a few questions before passing judgment on the operators: “Were they doing everything they could to prevent this,” he says. “Was this a freak accident? Or was this something that had to do with a lack of maintenance?” As the electrician for Ray Cammack Shows (RCS), he takes the industry’s reputation seriously. And while he’d prefer the general public not jump to conclusions about carnival safety based on one unfortunate incident, he’s not about to give shady owners a pass either.

RCS puts on just nine shows per year — from the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. — but each is huge and most run for upward of a month. At times, Creason will tap into the local utility power distribution system, but for the most part he relies on temporary power — a lot of temporary power. In Houston, where this year’s attendance topped 2.6 million, he routinely deploys a fleet of 17 generators, ranging in size from 220kW to 465kW.

So it should come as no surprise that grounding is his biggest safety concern each time RCS’s massive caravan of RVs and flatbeds rolls into a city. (He’s also an instructor for the Amusement Industry Manufacturers and Suppliers and teaches a class on the subject.) “I won’t put anything online until it’s properly grounded,” he says. That entails the NEC requirement for driving two 10-foot ground rods per generator, 8 feet into the ground and 6 feet apart, tying them together, and then bonding them to the generator. Then, at the source, he bonds the neutral and ground.

What he won’t do — though it’s been asked of him multiple times in the past — is ground every ride. “We run a 5-wire system,” Creason says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s dangerous to have a ground on every ride. You’re defeating the purpose of the central ground.”

His thoughts on that topic in particular offer a window into the most challenging dynamic a carnival electrician can face: interacting with the local inspector. The industry’s transitory nature means that while the equipment doesn’t change, the people signing off on it do. “I once played a fair and had to rewire a ride to meet that city’s code,” Creason says. “When we moved to the next city, which was 60 miles away but in the same state, we had to rewire it back to way it was before to meet that city’s code.” That’s not to say he won’t respect the ruling of the AHJ, but he doesn’t hesitate to voice his frustration either. “Everything changes from state to state and municipality to municipality.”

Dean Hunter has a different perspective on the amusement-ride inspection debate. He’s the Assistant Chief for Electrical Inspections in Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees both permanent and traveling amusement rides that operate in the state. And where Creason sees the potential for maddeningly different interpretations of the same rules at each stop, Hunter sees the possibility for new violations. “One operation had rolled through 38 towns over the course of a winter and early summer by the time it reached us last year,” he says. “Every time you set this equipment up, a cord could get pinched, or something could break loose.”

Not surprisingly, inspection rules for amusement rides can vary significantly from state to state. Some, like Arizona, have no requirements. Colorado conducts annual inspections, and Minnesota sends a contract inspector to every carnival that operates in the state, each time it sets up — though the initial inspection is more thorough than subsequent ones.

What are Minnesota’s inspectors looking for? Primarily that the installations comply with Art. 525 of the NEC. “I don’t care if it’s a bouncy house, a Ferris wheel, or a Tilt-a-Whirl, we look at lights, disconnect means, and grounding electrodes,” Hunter says. “We walk the cords and inspect their generator distribution system.” With four inspectors working a midway, he says a thorough review can be finished before noon. And then it’s up to the operator to address any major issues before a final walkthrough. “We’ll allow them to fix minor things on their own, like a cord that’s pulled out of a cord cap,” he says. “But if it’s anything egregious, like the replacement of ground fault receptacles, they have to have a licensed electrical contractor do that work.”

There is a limit to what inspectors can do, however. These are installations where, in many cases, equipment is exposed to the elements and people. Wires get nicked; generators get damaged. And while proper bonding and grounding practices should conceivably take care of electrical issues that come up in the course of a carnival’s stay in one municipality, problems can still arise. And although Minnesota doesn’t require spot inspections at an already-reviewed carnival, Hunter’s team occasionally gets an assist from kindred spirits. “We’ll get calls from electrical contractors who say, ‘I’m here at the carnival and noticed that some cables were ripped up,’” he says. “Our industry really helps us out in a lot of ways.” 

Fault lines

Without question, the corners Nick Rock cut in wiring the bumper car ride at the Lake County Fair led to Greyson Yoe’s death. In July 2004, less than a year after the accident, he was found guilty of reckless homicide and involuntary manslaughter. (The involuntary manslaughter conviction was later overturned on appeal.)

He wasn’t the only one to make mistakes, however. Two inspectors for the Ohio Department of Agriculture — one of whom had been on the job just six months and had no training or experience conducting electrical inspections — examined the Scooter. Although they identified an issue with a light panel, they failed to note the lack of a proper ground connection. In fact, one of the inspectors later admitted he assumed the ride was powered by a properly grounded generator he’d seen elsewhere on the fairgrounds, but he didn’t follow the Scooter’s power cords to confirm the connection.

Perhaps even more surprising, the other inspector was aware that the ride was running on utility power but told investigators that he didn’t check the wiring because in such cases it was his policy to defer to the electrician. In a civil suit brought by Yoe’s parents, a judge determined that while the inspectors failed to perform an adequate inspection of the ride, neither was liable for the boy’s death. The judge did, however, rule that the Ohio Department of Agriculture was negligent and awarded Yoe’s family a little over $1 million. Yet in another odd twist, that award was nullified because the family had already reached a nearly $2 million settlement with the ride’s owner.

So where did the fault current that flowed through Greyson Yoe originate? After arriving at the Lake County Fairgrounds the day after the boy’s death, Ralph Dolence requested that the ride’s power cable be disconnected from the utility pole. The cable was then connected to a portable generator, which was connected to a ground rod. When Dolence connected one test lead of his multimeter to the ride’s chassis and the other to the ground rod, he got a reading of 12.7V. Upon further investigation, he found two circuits improperly connected to a 20A breaker. When he removed one of the current-carrying conductors, the voltage reading disappeared. With the help of a ride owner’s representative, he traced that wire to a junction box on top of the ride. The wire inside this metal box had broken free from its connection. Further testing revealed that during operation, the cars’ movement would jostle the black wire, causing it to periodically make contact with the metal box. This created the situation that resulted in Greyson Yoe’s death. Other carnival attendees — and even the ride’s operator — complained of being shocked during the first two days of the Lake County Fair, though none was seriously injured. Greyson Yoe, it seems, touched that handrail at just the wrong time.

Much has changed in the Buckeye State since the early 2000s. Though the eight inspectors in the Department of Agriculture’s Amusement Ride Safety Division aren’t required to have electrical training, Chief Inspector Mike Vartorella says they test every electrified attraction at every touring carnival for “stray voltage.” (At a bare minimum, those tests are conducted at a carnival’s first stop in the state, but there’s nothing that says follow-up inspections won’t be made at subsequent stops.) And if inspectors detect anything greater than 1mA, the source of the problem has to be identified and fixed by a licensed electrical contractor. Not only that, operators must also conduct — and document — their own daily inspections before opening for business. “They will be fined if they can’t produce those logs,” Vartorella says. “That’s a priority for this office.”

Those changes to Ohio’s inspection protocol came too late to save Greyson Yoe, but they’ve likely reduced the chances of something similar happening again. As Dolence pointed out in interviews after the investigation, the boy didn’t die in vain.             

Halverson is a freelance writer based in Seattle. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

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