More than a month after 15-month-old Pressley Bartonek died after being electrocuted while grasping a guard rail at a traveling carnival in Wichita, her parents’ attorney says nothing has changed to prevent another death.
“I don’t know of any concerns that the electricity is being handled safely,” Gregory Young said.
A new stricter state law on amusement ride safety leaves inspection of electrical equipment up to local codes or the recommendations of ride manufacturers.
Within days of the electrocution, the traveling carnival moved from the parking lot of Towne West Square, where the girl was electrocuted, to Topeka.
Russ Hazlewood, the Wichita lawyer for the Missouri-based carnival, Evans United Shows, said Monday that the business doesn’t know how the incident occurred but is investigating.
“Our concern is for the family and to determine what happened so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hazlewood said.
Referring to the 15-month-old’s family, he said: “We want to relieve their suffering to the extent we can.”
Evans United offered a “no-strings agreement” to pay all medical and funeral expenses regardless of whether the carnival is found to be at fault “because of sympathy for the family,” he said
Wichita police investigating outside the carnival bouncy house where the 15-month-old was fatally injured on May 12 found an industrial light and a power box that were not insulated, The Eagle has reported. An autopsy determined the girl died from accidental electrocution. Both the light and the power box were plugged in with extension cords. The base of the light was sitting in water, the pole was touching a metal guardrail, and there was water inside rail stands, according to police. A police supervisor who responded that night was also shocked.
Even with that information, “It’s still unclear to us exactly how this fencing was energized, other than that it should have never been,” said Young, the attorney for the girl’s family.
“The Bartoneks’ sole focus is that this never happen again,” he said.
This could be the tragedy that changes how traveling carnivals safeguard electricity, which is a key issue because of “the fact that there’s electricity everywhere,” Young said.
His understanding is that the generator that was the main power supply for the carnival had wires routed by the bouncy house to the rest of the carnival, based on accounts at the scene.
Young said he was surprised to see photos taken by the media of what appeared to be exposed wires near the bouncy house.
Hazlewood, the carnival’s attorney, said he only recently began representing the business and hasn’t seen the photos.
Young contends that “A responsible carnival would have been leading the investigation and working side by side with the WPD (Wichita police) and Westar (to determine) exactly what happened and to make sure it never happens again. And to our knowledge, that never happened.”
Hazlewood said the police investigation was not typical. The usual method would have been to cordon off the scene to allow the carnival to investigate, he said. Police collected the light pole and cord before the carnival could investigate, and that’s partly why the carnival doesn’t know how the incident happened, Hazlewood said.
“Evans is entitled to a fair understanding of what happened before they are held accountable for that.”
He described Evans as a “small family company” that hasn’t had a similar incident in 70 years.
“Obviously, we want to find out what happened. In some cases, it’s really clear what happened. I don’t think this is one of them.”
Officer Charley Davidson, a police spokesman, said Monday that the department’s goal is to investigate thoroughly to determine whether a crime occurred and that investigators “take anything we think is of evidentiary value that will help determine what occurred.”
Based on his early investigation, Young said, emergency medical services workers had trouble getting access to Pressley. Bystanders had to move things out of the way so emergency workers could get their equipment to her, he said. A carnival worker on a golf cart had to be told to get out of the way, Young said.
Bystanders tried to resuscitate her. No carnival workers came to assist her, he said.
‘Don’t want to forget’
A tougher state amusement ride law is set to go into effect beginning in July. The call for more regulations came after 10-year-old Caleb Schwab died in August while riding a 17-story water slide at the Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kan. Caleb’s father is Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe.
Pressley’s death “is no less of a tragedy,” Young said.
The new law does not require inspections of metal fencing and guardrails around traveling carnival rides or county fair rides unless it is “recommended by the manufacturer of the ride or local code,” the Kansas Department of Labor said. The same applies to inspections of electrical equipment, including wiring, extension cords and lighting.
Pressley’s death prompted the head of Pennsylvania’s amusement safety program to warn his inspectors to watch for wires running close to fencing. Part of the solution, the official said, is to use voltage detectors to check whether equipment has become electrified. The guardrail that Pressley touched could have been tested, he said.
State law does not require carnival inspectors to use voltage detectors, but cities and counties could require the testing under local codes, the state agency said.
In a recent interview, Sen. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City, said that the focus of the new legislation was on making sure rides are designed to be safe and are operating as intended. As terrible as the Wichita tragedy is, electrical wiring is another issue that is better left to industry and local regulation, Estes said. It appears to be a rare incident, he said.
“We can’t pass laws that … cover every aspect.”
But Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, said fencing and extension cords should be part of the inspection process. The “environment around the ride” also needs to be inspected, Rogers said.
“We don’t need to lose another Pressley,” he said. “We don’t want to forget about her.”