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Officials: Too early to tell what caused thrill-ride accident at N.C. State Fair

Five people were hurt, two seriously, when a pendulum-swing thrill ride at the North Carolina State Fair jolted back to a start as riders were getting off, authorities and witnesses said.

Authorities said Friday that it was too early to tell what went wrong. They said that they were interviewing witnesses and looking for video, and that the ride, known as the Vortex, had passed all its inspections.

The ride was closed, but the state fair went on, and the state agriculture commissioner said he was so confident in the safety of the other rides that he would allow his own grandchildren to get on.

The Vortex spins and twirls riders and flips them upside-down. Caleb Norris told WNCN, the NBC affiliate in Raleigh, that he had just stepped off it Thursday night when he heard a crashing sound.

He said that he turned around and saw two people face-down. The ride operator fell to his knees crying, he said.

“It just sounded like a bunch of stuff hitting metal,” another witnesses, Richard Gephart, told WNCN. “And that was it. There was no screaming.”

Tom Chambers, an inspector with the state Labor Department, said that the ride had been briefly shut down on Monday night because of a malfunctioning switch, part of the mechanism that locks riders into their seats.

But Chambers said the switch was repaired, inspectors checked it out, and the ride went back into operation.

Two of the five injured were released from the hospital early Friday.

NBC News reported in July that at least 17 states don’t regulate amusement park rides. North Carolina does, and a spokeswoman for the state Labor Department said that the Vortex is inspected for safety three times a day during the annual fair.

Eleven years earlier to the day, on Oct. 24, 2002, a worker was killed at the North Carolina State Fair when the gondola of a different pendulum-style attraction, the Banzai, struck him in the head.

Daniel Arkin, Becky Bratu, Matthew DeLuca and Justin Kirschner of NBC News contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.