COLUMBUS — The Ohio State Fair says it took no immediate action on a 2017 recommendation to refurbish potentially dangerous chairs on its aging SkyGlider chairlift ride before last year's fair because the president of the manufacturer died, requiring the project be put on hold.
But an official from Skytrans said Wednesday that the company "is not a one-man show," and it could have repaired or rebuilt the chairs before the 2018 state fair. Rich Combs, general manager of the Contoocook, New Hampshire-based company, said he doesn't know why the fair put off making the safety improvements recommended by its late owner, Jerry Pendleton.
"I take exception to anybody saying that the work didn't get done last year because of Jerry's passing," Combs said. "It's unfair to Jerry's legacy and it's unfair to Skytrans," the affiliate of Pendleton's Skyfair Inc., which would have done the repairs and is under contract to replace 95 of the chairlift's chairs before the 2019 fair.
It would only have taken a few months to manufacture 95 chairs for the state fair, Combs said. "Whoever made the decision not to do it was from outside our company," he said.
Pendleton's warning was stark: "The canopies are literally starting to fall apart," he wrote Luis Perez, the state fair's assistant general manager. "Embedded steel components could be corroded and in need of replacement," safety issues that should be addressed before the 2018 fair, he wrote.
Fair spokeswoman Alicia Shoults said last week that Ohio Department of Agriculture ride inspectors cleared the SkyGlider as safe for last year's fair, but the department said this week that it never inspected the interior components that Pendleton warned about, and never saw the December 8, 2017, letter.
The letter arrived several months after one of the worst ride accidents in fair history. On July 26, 2017, the Fire Ball ride broke apart, killing a man and injuring six others. One of the injured later died.
The state assessment of the SkyGlider "did not include inspection of the interior enclosed components," Department of Agriculture spokesman Brett Gates said in an email.
Before the 2018 fair, Skytrans did inspect 20 percent of the chairs with a scope that was slid inside steel tubing, but the device couldn't show the entire frame.
The Fire Ball's disintegration was traced to hidden interior corrosion, the same issue Pendleton's letter warned could be occurring on the SkyGlider. The steel frame that holds that ride's chairs onto the cable had been encapsulated in molded fiberglass seats, hiding the frame from inspection. The chairs were installed in 1969 and exposed to the elements for half a century.
Shoults said Wednesday that the fair wasn't required to share the letter warning of potential safety problems with state inspectors.
"We called the manufacturer for a follow-up discussion, sharing our preference to replace the cars entirely instead of making a refurbishment only," Shoults said in an email. "They shared that a newly designed car would be available for the 2019 Fair."
"I have no record of them making a phone call to us," Combs said. "I can find no one in our company, and we're not that big. No one knows who took that phone call."
Combs said Perez sent a return letter referencing that "it was a matter of getting funding approval, so on and so forth."