Numerous Accidents Illuminate Perils Of 'Bounce Houses'
OCEANSIDE, N.Y. (AP) — They look like harmless fun — fluffy, inflated castles, ships and slides filled with children jumping around carelessly, their parents letting their guard down a bit during playtime.
But an accident that sent three of the huge toys aloft on a breezy afternoon on New York's Long Island, left a woman seriously injured and hurt 12 other people is drawing attention to the little-known hazards of the inflatable playthings sometimes called "bounce houses" and the inconsistent regulations covering them.
"I never thought there would be any serious issues, any concerns with safety," said Mike Perniches, a father who ran to the rescue of the injured after Saturday's accident. "But now, I'm like, forget it."
At least 10 inflatables around the country have been toppled by winds or collapsed under too much weight in the past two months, injuring more than 40 people, according to RideAccidents.com, a website that tracks amusement ride accidents.
It's not the toys themselves that are the problem, it's the way they are set up and supervised, said Jim Barber, a spokesman for the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, based in Brandon, Fla.
"I wish this was a rarity, but it's not. It happens all the time," ''These are probably the most dangerous amusement devices they have."
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati banned inflatable rides at church festivals in 2009 after a gust of wind tossed a slide about 70 yards, carrying an 11-year-old boy with it. He came away with just bruises.
A Pennsylvania man died in June 2010 after an inflatable slide collapsed and pinned him at a Cleveland Indians game. A 5-year-old boy was killed in March 2010 when he fell off an inflatable and landed on a concrete floor at an indoor entertainment center in Wichita, Kan.
In January 2010, winds blew a bounce house at a Florida birthday party into a pond with a 5-year-old girl inside. Neighbors saved the child by pulling her out of the water.
In Arizona this year, two accidents in the Tucson area injured four children, including sisters in February when wind bursts tossed a "bounce house" onto a roof. In April, a boy and girl were blown in a bounce house across three lanes of traffic.
In a little more than a week beginning in late April, two slides collapsed at separate events in California, injuring several children.
Then came Saturday's accident during a youth soccer tournament in Oceanside, when a rogue gust blew three inflatables off the ground, including a two-story inflatable slide. They carried the children playing in them and smashed into bystanders.
Michael Mazzocco, who was coaching his 6-year-old daughter's soccer game, said it was difficult at first to believe what he was seeing. Fathers, coaches and bystanders raced toward the airborne toys, some using knives to furiously stab and deflate them before anyone else was injured.
"We were all sprinting toward it, trying to grab the big one and get the air out of it," said Mazzocco, whose wife caught the scene on a video that went viral. "There was kind of pandemonium at first with kids not knowing where their parents were and parents on the other side trying to find their children. There were a few tense moments."
Thirteen people ended up at the hospital, including children, most with bumps and bruises. But Cathleen Hughes, 36, of Oceanside, suffered head and spinal injuries when a flying slide landed on top of her, according to Newsday.
"She was walking on the track and it hit her," Perniches told The Associated Press. "She was lying still on the ground; there was blood coming out of her mouth."
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said her office would investigate.
Gina Michielini, the owner of Affordable Inflatables and Party Rentals, said the gust came out of nowhere.
"You didn't see that wind coming," she said.
The inflatables were secured properly, and each had an operator, she said. No one was on the slide when it was blown away, but she couldn't say how the children were hurt.
The company has been in business for 10 years, and operators have shut them down in bad weather before, Michielini said.
Barber, of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, noted that the rides don't just float away "if they're properly installed" with stakes securely fixed in the ground.
Too many companies that rent inflatables will drop them off at a party with little instruction, said Barber, who was speaking generally about problems with inflatables and wasn't involved in the Oceanside case.
"A lot of times they never get anchored down; they put too many kids in, they put 2- and 3-year-old kids in with a 16-year-old," said Barber, who used to oversee New York state's ride inspectors.
A Consumer Product Safety Commission report released in 2005 linked the growing popularity of inflatables with an increasing number of injuries at emergency rooms from 1997 to 2004. The agency identified an estimated 1,300 injuries in 1997 and 4,900 in 2004, the most recent data available.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that operators should anchor inflatables to themanufacturer's requirements and that bigger inflatables, such as slides, should have at least two people operating them. It also says weight limits should be watched closely.
Most accidents are caused by improper anchoring, high winds and lack of supervision, according to a risk management advisory that New Hartford, N.Y.-based Utica National Insurance issued to groups that use inflatables.
Regulation of amusement rides, whether mechanical or inflatable, is left up to the states. While most have laws and inspectors overseeing mechanical rides at amusement parks and fairs, only a handful give inflatables the same scrutiny.
It would be a good idea for all states to regulate bounce houses and slides, Barber said, acknowledging that most don't have enough inspectors or money to keep up with the thousands in existence.
The escalating problems and lack of industry-wide standards led a group of inflatable operators to form a trade association in 2003 to promote safety and develop guidelines and training programs. The Responsible Operators of Amusement Rentals has about 50 members, most on the East Coast. That's a fraction of the companies operating today.
Mazzocco said he just hopes the Long Island accident will lead to changes.
"If we can get someone to make sure this doesn't happen again, I will be happy," he said.
Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio. Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.