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People rescued from stuck Ferris wheel at Party on the Pavement

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Ferris Wheel
Racine firefighters rescue riders including twins Natalie and Nicole Wagenaar, 7, from a Ferris wheel which became stuck at Sixth and Main streets during Party on the Pavement, Saturday October 2, 2010. / Mark Hertzberg mhertzberg@journaltimes.com

RACINE - It probably wasn't what 17 Party on the Pavement patrons expected - spending almost three hours sitting on a broken Ferris wheel at the intersection of Sixth and Main streets.

Firefighters were called for help at about 12:48 p.m. On the ground, Mike Wagenaar, 41, of Lake Villa, Ill., saw what happened.

"Something popped, and it went sideways. It came out of alignment," he said, as his wife and twin daughters swung in their pink seat almost at the top of the wheel. The family often comes to Racine, he said; their boat is moored in the harbor.

Wagenaar said he is a commercial and industrial electrician, and he made some suggestions to firefighters about how to stabilize the wheel before passengers were removed. He was also interested in explanations.

"I don't want this thing moved until somebody can tell me why it's failed," he said.

"I feel very confident in what they're doing. I'm glad they're taking their time, and they're planning it out and stabilizing it before they move on," said Julie Arens, 57, of Wind Point. Her son-in-law and grandson were in one of the chairs. Her husband was in touch by cell phone, and her grandson was handling it well, she said.

"He's only 2 1/2. I think he's excited about all the fire trucks," she said.

Preparations for getting people off the ride took almost two hours. Firefighters brought in a small crane from Floyd's Towing and strapped the end of the crane to the wheel to stabilize it. They also tied the edges of the wheel to the buckets of two large loaders. At about 2:30 p.m., the actual rescue began. With one firefighter on the end of a ladder stabilizing each chair, two others, working on the other side of the wheel, helped passengers into a basket raised from one of the trucks. The final group of passengers, sitting in a low-hanging chair and facing north, were taken off at about 3:15 p.m. by Caledonia firefighters.

It was not a typical rescue for firefighters, not something they train for, but the basics applied, said Battalion Chief George Filber of the Racine Fire Department. The total effort, he said, involved four trucks or engines, six rescue squads, and various commanders and specially trained firefighters from the Racine, Caledonia, and South Shore departments, the Racine Fire Bells, and private assistance from Floyd's Towing and Klaus Cranes, which was held in reserve.

After all the passengers had been taken off the wheel, a police officer climbed up a fire truck ladder and photographed the large axle on which the Ferris wheel turned. From the ground, it looked as if the axle had pushed out of its housing.

Police Chief Kurt Wahlen was also interested in explanations.

"It won't move until we have somebody with some expertise look at it," he said later Saturday afternoon.

That may be an engineer, or the city may have to wait for the arrival of a state inspector, he said. If the intersection must remain closed, it will, he said. The Ferris wheel was operated by Earl's Rides Inc., of Weyauwega.

The rescue became a prime attraction for people attending the city's annual street party. Spectators cheered each step as firefighters helped people from the Ferris wheel chairs and as people set foot once again on the ground. None of the 17 people stuck on the immobile Ferris wheel were injured.

"I did cry a little bit," said 7-year-old Nicole Wagenaar after she, her sister, Natalie, and her mom, Tanya, had warmed up in the Red Onion restaurant. "We were cold up there."

Both were wrapped in fire department rescue blankets. Most of the time, the sky remained clear. Only near the end did rain interrupt, a few minutes of chilly drops from a passing cloud.

"We were pretty scared," Tanya said, "but we had Nick from the Fire Department sitting behind us that kept us up to date. And the girls did phenomenal consider two hours sitting at the top of a Ferris wheel."

Nick is Capt. Nick Comande from the Racine Fire Department's paramedic group. He was on the Ferris wheel with his 9-year-old daughter, Rachel.

"I was concerned," he said as he sipped a hot drink. Fortunately, the wind was from the north. Had it shifted direction to one side, it could have pushed the wheel over, he said.

At 3:30 p.m., the weather station at Racine's Batten International Airport was recording winds from the north at 23 mph with gusts to 35.

Rachel said she was a little scared: "You never know what's going to happen in these things."

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