Mark McGrath watches attentively from his control panel as the cylindrical carnival ride he is operating rapidly spins several giggling, screaming children at a 45-degree angle some 15 feet in the air.
“They don’t put nobody on this machine that don’t know how to operate it,” McGrath says as he slowly brings the ride to a stop and watches as the children dizzily stagger off, shoving and laughing as they go.
McGrath, a 20-plus year veteran of the carnival business who is working this week at the Washington County Fair, said the commonly held belief that carnival rides are hastily erected, poorly maintained, dangerous contraptions operated by unqualified workers is largely unfounded.
Complicated, fast rides that leave the ground like McGrath’s “Round-Up” – a merry-go-round on steroids that spins fast enough to generate the G-forces needed to keep the occupants standing at its sides from flying out – require at least 18 months of operator training, said McGrath.
Some parents remain fearful of carnival rides.
“I don’t feel they’re safe,” said Robin Dunley of Washington, who was attending the fair Wednesday. “I’m a nervous wreck when I come down here.”
Dunley said that despite her worries, she still allows her children to ride some of the rides. She’s skeptical that the rides can be safe when it seems they are “put up and torn down too fast.”
According to the state Department of Agriculture, the governing body that regulates carnival ride inspections, carnival rides must be inspected by a state-certified inspector each time they are erected, and each time they are deconstructed for storage and transportation.
Companies such as J&J Amusements, the company that is operating the rides at the fair, keep state-certified inspectors on staff who inspect the rides both on erection and deconstruction, and also every morning before operation.
“You’re in more danger in a car,” said J&J ride inspector Matt Pierce.
Pierce said he inspects the rides thoroughly every morning before opening to the general public. Any problems he finds, even minor ones, are reported and fixed immediately.
“The only people I’ve ever seen get hurt on a ride was through their own stupidity,” Pierce said, recalling instances of riders jumping out of their seats before the ride was over, sustaining minor injuries.
McGrath has seen worse.
A man riding a Round-Up at a major theme park at which McGrath was working tried to climb out mid-flight. The man fell into the center area of the ride, snapped his neck on the support bars and died. The man was later found to have been suicidal.
McGrath said such serious accidents are rare, and can be avoided if riders simply heed the instructions of the operators.
“As long as they listen, it’s safe,” he said. “If they don’t listen, they’re going to get hurt.”
Bobby Moran runs the game stand “Tubs,” which involves throwing a softball-sized rubber ball into a plastic tub four feet away.
Moran used to be a ride supervisor, but asked for the change because the job was too intense.
“There is a lot more to it than you would expect,” Moran said, adding that the yearly inspection school, near-encyclopedic knowledge required of the complicated rides and rigorous inspections wore on him over the years.
For McGrath, the training and constant inspections are worth the enjoyment he gets from the carnival life.
“I’ll be honest, I Iove this job,” McGrath said as he pulled the lever to the Round-Up, and sent another gaggle of giggling kids spinning through the air.