State safety inspectors Wednesday interviewed the operator believed to be responsible for a roller coaster crash this week at the Orange County Fair, focusing on the possibility that he was distracted from activating the ride's brakes because he was trying to do two jobs at once.
The operator told a state inspector he was performing another function about the time he should have been concentrating on braking a train coming into the ride's loading area, according to an interview witnessed by The Times.
Eight people were injured late Monday night when the two-car train rammed into an empty train, sending it into a third train that was being loaded with passengers, according to authorities and victims.
The most seriously injured passenger, Chris Pitts, 21, of Huntington Beach, was hospitalized with a bruised spine and other injuries. He was released Wednesday from Huntington Beach Medical Center.
With mechanical failure all but ruled out in the ongoing investigation, James Meyer, a senior safety engineer with the California Department of Industrial Relations, said inspectors are trying to determine whether new safety requirements should be written for the Cyclone roller coaster, which is owned and operated by B & B Amusements of Yuma, Ariz.
Meyer also said he did not foresee any action being taken against B & B Amusements or the unidentified employee believed responsible for the collision. He said the carnival owner's records in his office, dating back to 1986, show no past major violations.
"We don't have the power to fine people," Meyer said, although inspectors can revoke operating permits. "What we can and more than likely will do, is write some specific requirements making some specific changes with regard to the operation of the ride to avoid this from happening again."
A spokesman for the state Department of Industrial Relations said its records on B & B show four other accidents: a 1991 incident involving the Himalaya ride at the Imperial County midwinter fair; a 1989 accident at the Utah State Fair on an undisclosed ride; a 1988 incident involving the Flying Bobs at an unknown location; and 1987 accident on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride at another unknown location.
An accident similar to the one on Monday occurred at the fair in 1987, resulting in an out-of-court settlement between a Fountain Valley woman and B & B.
Lisa Pekarcik, 26, and three friends sued B & B Amusements after suffering bruises and back injuries when the roller coaster crashed into some empty cars on the loading bay. The terms of the settlement were not made public, but Pekarcik said they were based on the medical bills of each victim.
"I heard one of the workers yelling 'Brake! Brake!' and the ride was not slowing down at all," Pekarcik recalled Wednesday.
In Wednesday's interview, Rob McGirr, associate safety engineer for the state Department of Industrial Relations, questioned the unidentified ride operator under a tent surrounded by B & B trailer offices. Ramses Ibrahim, another associate safety engineer, listened. A Times reporter was present for a portion of the interview before she was escorted away.
The man, who appeared to be in his 30s, and McGirr seemed to agree that the brakeman should have only one duty--to be responsible solely for stopping the roller coaster trains as they enter the loading bay.
The operator told McGirr that he was performing another function about the time he should have been concentrating on braking the incoming train. It was unclear from the interview whether the operator was attempting to load or unload passengers into an empty car.
McGirr consoled the employee, telling him he had seen worse accidents and should try to put the incident behind him.
McGirr said that his job was to make sure that similar accidents would not happen in the future, and he asked the man for his opinion on additional training requirements and safety measures that could help prevent another accident.
As the interview was wrapping up, McGirr read the statement back to the man. After the interview, Buddy Merten, president of B & B Amusements, declined comment and refused to allow a reporter to interview the employee.
B & B Amusements has been sued in Orange County Superior Court 15 times since 1985. The majority of the lawsuits claimed that rides operated by the company were unsafe and caused a variety of injuries. Attorneys for the company denied the allegations in court records.
Many of the lawsuits against B & B Amusements were ultimately dismissed without any findings against the firm.
The most recent suit, filed July 9, claims that a teen-age girl suffered a broken arm last year at the Orange County Fair while taking a trip through a revolving tunnel as part of the Fun House attraction.
In another lawsuit, B & B Amusements was dropped as a defendant after an arbitrator ruled that the manufacturer of a ride was responsible for an injury to a woman who lost a tooth.