Rodeo Hat Trick
When Ray Cammack Shows erected the popular Euroslide at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2002, it drew the kind of crowds one would expect from the world's largest lollipop or the biggest Rainbow Brite in Toyland. Its 200-foot plunge, in any of eight candy-hued plastic lanes, was a marvel to children of all ages, including 38-year-old investment manager Kathryn Spicker.
Spicker followed a dense crowd past curlicues of pulsing lights to the top of the slide, where she laid a felt mat on a lane the color of orange soda. She breezed down six undulating drops, and at the final straightway was still moving fast. Her ankle flew off the slide, twisted on a wrinkle in the carpet landing pad and shattered. She looked down to see her heel sticking up where her toes had been.
Oblivious kids flew off the nearby lanes and stepped over her. Spicker just stared at her foot, which seemed strangely unattached. "The entire left side of my body went numb," she says, "and I couldn't feel anything."
At the hospital, surgeons rebuilt her ankle with nine screws and a four-inch plate. An avid runner and tennis player, she couldn't walk for six weeks and was told she might never play many sports again. She asked Ray Cammack Shows to compensate her for her pain and medical bills, but the operator refused to admit it had made a mistake.
The exclusive ride contractor for the rodeo, Cammack considers its safety standards the best in the country. Its Web site brags of its "record low numbers of incidents and a reputation for excellence in safety procedures nationwide." When the rodeo selected the Arizona-based operator to run its rides 12 years ago, rodeo officials have said, its stellar safety record was one of the major considerations.
But when Spicker sued Cammack, her attorney, Joe B. Stephens, uncovered a strikingly different story. Rather than a safe, modern amusement-ride company, he argues, Cammack represented the worst of the old-time carnies: a fly-by-night thrill racket prone to put profits over safety, even if it meant breaking the law and concealing the truth.
"This outfit runs a shady operation at best," Stephens says.
Cammack fiercely fought Spicker's lawsuit, claiming the Euroslide had been safe all along. The carpet in the slide's landing area was firmly secured with screws, ride supervisor Robbie Jundt testified in a deposition. Jundt couldn't remember if it had been wrinkled when Spicker came off the slide, but if it was, "We would shut that [ride] down and pull it tight," he said, adding that the process would require completely unscrewing and reattaching it -- a 15- to 30-minute project.
Jundt's testimony might have swayed a jury, if not for strong evidence that he was lying.
Four hours before Spicker's accident, Jacqueline Washington, a U.S. postal worker, had climbed aboard the Euroslide, her favorite ride at the rodeo. In a deposition, she said she swooshed down the slide, waving her hat in the air and screaming "yee-haa!" But when she reached the carpet, her feet "hit something" and she slammed forward onto her face. Feeling sharp pain in her ankles, she limped to a bench.
Cammack's attendants wouldn't help Washington hobble to a shuttle, she said, so she sat and watched the ride. She saw two workers walk out to the carpet, grab it on two sides and pull it back toward the slide. No screws were removed, she said, and the whole operation took just a couple of minutes.
"I was like, 'Why are they stretching this carpet?' and then all of a sudden it was dawning on me that, okay, here I am, this little peon, I've gotten hurt, and they are going to try to cover this up."
After Washington's incident, state law should have required Cammack to shut the slide down. In the event of a serious injury, the Amusement Ride Safety Inspection and Insurance Act requires operators to close a ride until a new inspection is performed. Jundt maintained the ride was shut down and inspected, but Washington says after the carpet was stretched, the ride resumed.
Spicker also never saw an inspection. Although her twisted body blocked three of the slide's lanes, she said, the other five kept running until the paramedics arrived and closed the slide down to evacuate her. It quickly reopened, and an hour later, Anna Delarosa descended, tumbled over the carpet and suffered the third twisted ankle of the evening. She "did not want to get up quickly," a Cammack accident report said, and was driven off in a golf cart.
The carpet wrinkles weren't the only factors in the slide injuries, Stephens says. The angle of the Euroslide was adjustable, and it had been tuned to produce dangerously high speeds. Instead of adjusting the slide's curves, he said, employees had resorted to a dubious braking method: They poured cola on the slide to make it sticky.
Although Cammack's safety methods might look shoddy, compared to stationary amusement parks, the traveling carnivals are well regulated. Parks such as Six Flags escaped federal oversight through a 1981 loophole, but mobile rides are overseen by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The commission can shut down rides it deems unsafe.
The traveling-carnival industry is big business in Texas. More than 150 mobile outfits travel here, and a dozen are based in Houston. A bill sponsored by Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat from Austin, designed to give Texas authorities more control over the mobile rides, failed to pass the senate in 2001. State law relies on insurance agents to inspect rides and requires operators to report any injuries that call for more medical attention than first aid.
Based on these figures, Cammack has reported 47 injuries in Texas -- more than any mobile operator and the tenth-highest figure in the state. The company exceeds even some stationary parks, such as Splashtown in San Antonio.
But the real rate of injury on Cammack rides could be higher. When Stephens contacted state authorities a year after Spicker's injury, they had no record of her accident. In fact, they told him Cammack hadn't reported a single injury in its ten-year history at the rodeo. "The company brags about its great safety record," Stephens says, "but the amusement industry, and Ray Cammack Shows in particular, has a long history of deceit."
Meanwhile, rodeo authorities apparently remain blissfully unaware of Cammack's problems. Tom Quarles, assistant general manager of operations for the rodeo, told the Houston Chronicle this March that he could not recall any midway injury more serious than minor scrapes and bruises in the past two decades. No sources in the story challenged his assertion.
Spicker could tell Quarles otherwise. She won more than $60,000 from Cammack in court, but the award was hardly worth it. Her foot still goes to sleep if she doesn't twirl it at her desk. Her ankle aches when cold fronts blow in. And when she tried running three miles last month for the first time in two years, she had to stop because it hurt too much.
Visiting the rodeo again this March, it was small comfort to see Cammack had replaced the carpet below the slide with a hefty wrestling mat. Her scarred ankle still hadn't changed. "All of the kids were running around, looking happy," Spicker says, "and I thought, 'You want to see my rodeo souvenir?' " -- Josh Harkinson
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.