COLUMBIA --- A safety inspector admitted he never tested a children's train ride that derailed last weekend, killing a 6-year-old boy and injuring dozens of others, state officials said Monday, and witnesses described the small engine increasing its speed just before it went off the tracks near a bridge.
Authorities have not said exactly what caused the train to crash Saturday at Cleveland Park in Spartanburg. The nearly 60-year-old-train dubbed "Sparky" opened a week early because of the warm 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, and his parents and siblings were injured, along with 25 other children and adults on board. 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 victims said church members told him they felt the train speed 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 said the operator sped up on the third 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 certification had lapsed, and he would have been required to attend a retraining session in April with six other LLR employees.
"We are very sorry for the tragedy," Templeton said. "I don't have any reason to doubt this man's character."
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.
Patel said a candlelight vigil for Benji was planned tonight at the park.