Inspector Faked Safety Report on South Carolina Kids’ Train That Crashed

March 23, 2011

A South Carolina safety inspector admitted he never tested a children’s train ride that derailed over the weekend, killing a 6-year-old boy and injuring dozens of others, state officials said.

Authorities have not said exactly what caused the train to crash Saturday at Cleveland Park in Spartanburg, the northwestern part of the state. Witnesses described the small engine increasing its speed just before it went off the tracks near a bridge.

The nearly 60-year-train dubbed “Sparky” opened a week early because of the warm spring weather and was supposedly checked by a state inspector last Wednesday. But after the crash, the inspector came forward to say he hadn’t done a thorough review.

Benji Easler died after the train went off its rails, and his parents and siblings were also injured, along with 25 other children and adults onboard. The injuries ranged from bumps and bruises to broken bones. Some of the children were taken away on stretchers.

Many of those on the train were members of Corinth Baptist Church, where Easler’s father is pastor. A youth minister who is acting as spokesman for the crash victims said church members told him they felt the small train speeding up.

“All of my people said the train got faster and faster,” the Rev. Nathan Ellis said. “They felt like it was increasing in speed and something was wrong.”

A woman who rode the train just before the crash with granddaughters said the operator sped up on the third and final lap. After her ride, the train wrecked on its third lap.

“The first two laps were peaceful, he’d go around slow,” said Marlene Sellars, 55. “That last lap, he would go fast. He just would barrel through there.”

The ride was reportedly inspected by Donnie Carrigan, but he admitted falsifying a report in which he marked the train’s operation at proper speed as “satisfactory,” according to Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation chief Catherine Templeton.

Carrigan, a 20-year agency employee who has been fired, said he didn’t test the ride March 16 because its battery was dead, making it inoperable, according to Templeton. The battery was replaced Saturday morning, Spartanburg Parks Commission spokeswoman Nisha Patel said.

“Unfortunately the inspector did not complete his job,” Templeton said.

Templeton also said Carrigan’s national certification had lapsed, and he would have been required to attend a retraining session in late April with six other LLR employees.

As soon as agency officials learned of the crash, Templeton said Carrigan came forward and said he had filed a complete report but had not done a thorough inspection.

“We are very sorry for the tragedy,” Templeton said. “I don’t have any reason to doubt this man’s character.”

A working phone listing for Carrigan could not immediately be found.

The Easlers are both natives of Spartanburg and are still setting funeral arrangements for Benji.

“They’re just grieving the loss of their son,” Ellis said. “They’re healing from their injuries. The physical wounds will heal.”

Ellis said church members were praying for everyone involved.

“It doesn’t matter what happened. The details of what happened are not going to change the outcome and the results we’re facing now,” Ellis said. “Benji’s life is going to change other people’s lives. … I hope lessons can be learned, but we don’t hold any ill feelings or ill will toward any of those people.”

Patel said a candlelight vigil for Benji was planned for Tuesday night at the park.

Earlier Monday, hospital officials said the train’s driver had been released from a hospital.

Also, Gov. Nikki Haley pledged her support for the crash investigation, which is being handled by the Spartanburg Public Safety Department and the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

Public Safety Capt. Art Littlejohn said authorities were still reviewing witness statements and 911 calls.

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