COLUMBUS — As summer fair seasons heads into full swing, Ohio's new agriculture director is warning that she will shut down any amusement ride if state inspectors can't verify the condition of critical internal parts not visible to them.

With the Ohio State Fair set to open in two weeks, state Agriculture Director Dorothy Pelanda on Wednesday showed off the newly refurbished chairlift ride at the fairgrounds, which now sports almost 100 brand-new chairs that replaced ones a half-century old. The old chairs contained embedded steel components not visible to inspectors, while the new design corrects that.

"I have confidence in our inspectors," said Pelanda, who then rode the SkyGlider on its half-mile loop across the fairgrounds, passing two workers dangling from an inspection gondola.

After the SkyGlider's manufacturer, Skytrans, warned a fair official in December 2017 that interior steel components encased inside the vintage chairs were potentially dangerous and should be immediately repaired or replaced, officials waited a year to do the work and never revealed the manufacturer's concerns to ride inspectors or the public.

"The canopies [over the chairs] are literally starting to fall apart in the area where the shaft collar holds them in place,” Jerry Pendleton, president of the firm, wrote in a letter to Luis Perez, the fair’s assistant general manager. “The seats, particularly the embedded steel inside the seats, are also of considerable concern. ... Both the canopy and embedded steel are safety issues and we would like to see these repaired and repainted before the 2018 fair.”

But the ride operated during the 2018 state fair without the recommended repairs. The fair later told the State Controlling Board: “Upon a post-2018 fair inspection it was determined that for the future safety of riders [the SkyGlider seats] should be replaced.”

After The Dispatch uncovered the manufacturer's warning in March in documents obtained through the Ohio Public Records Act, Pelanda announced new ride-safety measures, including requiring ride operators to sign a form stating that all relevant safety and maintenance communications from ride manufacturers have been forwarded to state ride inspectors.

Interior corrosion caused the 72-foot-tall, 54-ton Fire Ball ride to break apart at the Ohio State Fair in July 2017, immediately killing Tyler Jarrell, 18, who was thrown from a gondola. Six others were injured. One of them, Jennifer Lambert, 19, died in September 2018 after having suffered major brain damage.

The ride's manufacturer determined that “excessive corrosion on the interior of the gondola support beam dangerously reduced the beam’s wall thickness over the years [which] ... finally led to the catastrophic failure of the ride during operation.”

After the fatal collapse, then-Gov. John Kasich pledged that Ohio would learn from the tragedy and would share those lessons to better protect the public. But it wasn't until Gov. Mike DeWine took office in January that the state would see any substantial change in the ride-inspection program.

Other changes introduced this year include reclassifying all rides to identify those needing more-comprehensive testing, taking into account hidden components integral to the safety of the ride, and requiring operators to respond in writing within 14 days that any problems identified by inspectors have been fixed. Pelanda also requested a 26% funding increase to the inspection program, which is still pending. In addition to getting almost 100 new chairs, the SkyGlider also was fitted this spring with a new braking system for the first time since it was installed in 1969, keeping its cable from rolling when it's brought to a stop — a feature that officials didn't deem critical for the last 50 years. It has also been fitted with new permanent fencing that keeps vehicles from hitting the chairs when they descend to ground level at either end of the ride.

Four days after The Dispatch first reported on the SkyGlider problems, Perez, who had been with the fair since 1977, submitted his retirement notice.

The 2019 Ohio State Fair runs from July 24-Aug. 4 at the state fairgrounds in Columbus. For more information, go to: https://ohiostatefair.com.