AUGUSTA, Maine — In October 2014, Cassidy Charette, a bright and promising 17-year-old from Oakland, was killed and 22 others were injured when a wagon turned over at a haunted hayride at Harvest Hill Farm in Mechanic Falls.
On Christmas Day, Kathy Marciarille, a 56-year-old from Rome, was killed after a motorist who was reportedly blinded by the afternoon sun ran into a horse-drawn carriage on Industrial Road in Waterville. Marciarille was thrown from the carriage and then run over by the car before succumbing to her injuries two days after the accident.
Now, a group of Maine public safety officials is starting to look into whether or not the state should — or could — do more to regulate this kind of amusement. Last year, Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, introduced legislation that would have the Maine state fire marshal’s office inspect hayrides for which people pay money, just as that office oversees carnival rides.
His bill ended up becoming a resolve to have stakeholders including the fire marshal’s office and the chief of the Maine State Police form a task force to review and report recommendations on the safety of such rides. That task force is scheduled to meet soon, and Nutting is eager to learn what, if any, recommendations arise.
“My intent was that a hayride operator who charges people should be inspected so that people who get on have a reasonable expectation that someone has looked at the equipment,” he said Thursday. “It sounds easy, but nothing’s easy. There are 100 or more operators in the state who offer hayrides. It’s difficult, because there are so many pieces of equipment, like tractors and wagons, and there are so many different roads and trails [they operate on].”
Although the state fire marshal’s office planned to report information from the carriage accident in Waterville to the legislative task force, according to the Waterville Police Department, Nutting said that he sees the two fatal incidents as being quite different. The Waterville carriage was being operated on a road and the passengers did not pay to get on, he said.
“I think that was just a tragic automobile accident,” Nutting said. “I see that as a different case.”
According to Maine Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas, the fact that there are so many variations even among groups and businesses offering paid hayrides complicates the work of figuring out safety recommendations.
“There’s no real industry standard, so to speak, for the hayride industry,” he said. “The circumstances of it are all over the place.”
Even nationally, he said, there are no accepted safety standards for hayrides.
“It’s certainly a tragedy,” he said of the hayride incident that claimed Cassidy Charette’s life. “But does it truly indicate [hayrides] need to be regulated by the state? That’s what we’re grappling with right now.”
Charette’s parents, Monica and Randy Charette, recently released a statement through attorney Jodi Nofsinger, saying that they are appreciative of the discussion and awareness that “Cassidy’s Law” and proposed bills have brought to the issue of unregulated hayrides and public safety. The couple said that while proposals to inspect hayride vehicles for lights and brakes serve as a good start, they do not address other important factors, including a vehicle’s integrity, towing capabilities and weight limits.
“Our hope is that in the very near future, these items will be considered as part of a mandatory inspection,” her parents said.
In the Oct. 11, 2014, hayride accident, Cassidy Charette was on the hay wagon when the Jeep pulling it went out of control and sent the wagon careening down a hill. According to BDN archives, investigators pointed to mechanical problems with the late-model Jeep and experts have questioned whether the vehicle was hauling too heavy a load. Last summer, the Androscoggin County grand jury indicted the farm where the hayride was held on a charge of manslaughter.
The Charettes said that they hope any proposed legislation also considers enforcement and progressive discipline for “willful violations.”
“Cass and her friends were innocently enjoying time together, doing what parents would perceive as a safe and appropriate activity for their teens,” her parents said. “Ultimately, our greatest hope is that people will become educated and more aware of the potential dangers of seemingly harmless activities, where safety should be a reasonable expectation.”
According to Thomas, the fire marshal, the task force needs to prepare a report for the Maine Legislature by Feb. 1. Others who are keeping an eye out for the committee’s recommendations include farmers such as Marilyn and Steve Meyerhans, who own The Apple Farm in Fairfield and Lakeside Orchards in Manchester. Every autumn, thousands of people take rides through their orchards on specially designed wagons pulled by tractors.
“I’ve often thought that people ought to be very careful with wagon rides,” Marilyn Meyerhans said. “Years and years and years ago, we had a flatbed trailer. We realized that it just was not safe, and we had special wagons built.”
Those wagons have high sides, so excited passengers can’t topple out, and seats that make people sit back. Even so, passengers at The Apple Farm listen to a safety talk before the wagon starts to move and the staff checks out the equipment before every ride.
“It’s like with an airplane. You do a walkaround and check the safety features,” Marilyn Meyerhans said. “Regulation, for us, is not going to make any difference. If someone wants to come around and look at our stuff, I have no problem. But it would mean a fee, and that’s an issue for a bunch of places.”
Nutting said that he does not want any proposed regulations to adversely affect people like farmers who might haul people to their orchards in wagons.
“Sometimes you can’t make a law that fixes what you wish you could fix without having terrible side effects, so we’ll wait and see,” he said.