By FRANK ELTMAN and JOHN SEEWER
OCEANSIDE, N.Y. - They look like harmless fun - fluffy castles, ships and slides filled with children carelessly bouncing around, 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, seriously injured a woman 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," Barber said. "These are probably the most dangerous amusement devices they have."
A few states, such as New Jersey, make sure operators are trained on all inflatables, while others require operators only to have insurance. Most have no guidelines.
"It's actually crazy," said Matthew Mark, who owns a party rental company near Detroit and seven years ago founded the Safe Inflatable Operators Training Organization. "They're not quite carnival rides, but they should be regulated almost like them."
The injured, killed or merely frightened in recent years include:
- An 11-year-old boy who suffered bruises after a gust of wind tossed a slide about 70 yards at a church festival near Cincinnati.
- A Pennsylvania man who was killed in June 2010 after an inflatable slide collapsed and pinned him at a Cleveland Indians game.
- A 5-year-old boy who was killed in March 2010 when he fell off an inflatable and landed on a concrete floor in Wichita, Kan.
- A 5-year-old girl who had to be rescued after winds blew a bounce house into a pond during a birthday party in January 2010.
- Four children in Arizona this year in the Tucson area, including two sisters when a bounce house blew onto a roof. A boy and girl were blown in a bounce house across three lanes of traffic in April.
- Several children injured in late April when two slides collapsed at separate events in California.
Saturday's accident during a youth soccer tournament in Oceanside came when a rogue gust on a clear but breezy day blew three inflatables off the ground, including a two-story slide, into bystanders. No children were on the slide, but it isn't clear whether anyone was in or on the other two inflatables.
Michael Mazzocco, who was coaching his 6-year-old daughter's soccer game, watched the airborne toys with disbelief. Fathers, coaches and bystanders raced toward them, 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 the slide landed on 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. It wasn't immediately clear how strictly inflatables are regulated in New York.
The devices were secured properly, and each had an operator, Gina Michielini, the owner of Affordable Inflatables and Party Rentals, which supplied the inflatables.
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.
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 commission warns that operators should anchor inflatables to the manufacturer's requirements and that bigger inflatables, such as slides, should have at least two operators. 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.
Barber acknowledged that it would be expensive for all states to regulate the thousands of inflatables operators in existence. Industry observers estimate there are 10,000 operators or renters nationwide.
It would be worth it, though, for all states to do so, said Mark, the safety promoter near Detroit. Too many people rent a bounce house for a party, he said, and think of them as a baby-sitter.
Regulations and inspections won't make a difference if safety guidelines aren't followed, said Kimble Oliver, a risk management expert from High Falls, Ga., who insures owners of inflatables.
"It's all about the operator," he said. "Just like anything, you need somebody competent doing it."
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.