GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A woman whose horrific go-kart accident prompted a push for stronger regulations has died.
The family of Rachel Gibbs, 46, told News 8 the wife, mom and photo editor died in January at a long-term care facility in England.
She’d been in a permanent vegetative state since August 2015, when her scarf was caught in a go-kart wheel at AJ’s Family Fun Center in Comstock Park.
Gibbs, her husband and two young sons lived in the U.K. but were visiting her parents and sister in West Michigan when a family outing turned tragic.
The Gibbses, nearing the end of their two-and-a-half-week visit, were scheduled to fly back to England the next day.
“It was August, but it was a chilly day,” recalled Gibbs’ sister, Corri Sandwick. “So, Rachel had a scarf on and so did my mom.”
But attendants at AJ’s go-kart track failed to notice the scarves — or failed to order their removal — as the group buckled up and took off around the track.
“My mom had seen the scarf was coming loose and was trying to get (Rachel’s) attention over the loud go-karts, and the attention of the attendants,” she said.
According to a lawsuit filed by the family against AJs, the employees were not monitoring the race.
“The attendants were just standing, looking at a cell phone or something in the center, and not watching us at all,” Sandwick said.
At the time, the track had several safety warnings posted, but none specifically mentioned the danger of loose clothing.
“(Rachel’s) scarf got caught in the axle of the tire and cut off her windpipe. She was without oxygen for about ten minutes, which is what caused the brain damage to the extent that she was in a vegetative state for the last five years of her life,” explained Sandwick.
“A bystander was actually watching and started to see this happen, and she jumped over the gate and really took control of the scene. The employees didn’t really know what to do. Nobody knew CPR. No first aid kits,” she said.
According to Sandwick, it was Gibb’s husband — with his England-based cell phone — who called 911.
“He had asked some of the employees for the address of where they were, and nobody knew what to tell him either,” recalled Sandwick.
In 2017, AJs settled the Gibbses’ lawsuit for $1 million.
That’s when Sandwick reached out to State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, and began working on a bill to strengthen Michigan’s regulation of carnivals and amusement parks.
The bill, which passed out of a House Committee this week, would require businesses to train their employees on safety and emergency procedures.
“Compared to other states, (Michigan’s) process is lacking,” Rep. Albert told lawmakers Thursday morning at a meeting of the House Committee on Rules and Competitiveness.
Agents from the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs already inspect carnival rides, but Michigan doesn’t require training of the employees who run them.
“There’s not really any training requirements, so (under the bill) each individual operator would have to have training in place. They’d have to keep a log of it,” explained Albert in an interview Friday with News 8 via Zoom.
“What happened with Rachel Gibbs, the employee who was working there didn’t really know what to do,” Albert said. “They were kind of frozen in the heat of the moment.”
In addition to training and emergency preparedness mandates, the bill would also require that carnivals and amusement parks report serious injuries and deaths to state regulators.
Lisa Rife, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, attended the committee hearing.
“Our association is in support of this bill,” Rife testified at Thursday morning’s hearing.
Albert expects the bill to make it to the House floor soon for a vote, after which it will go to the Senate.
He believes the legislation will move quickly now since he’s already made adjustments over several years with input from state regulators and carnival industry leaders.
Target 8 visited AJ’s off West River Drive Thursday evening to see if the park has made changes on its own since the 2015 accident.
AJ’s did not know we were there.
We noted there are now signs posted that warn riders, not just about the danger of long hair, but also loose clothing.
Target 8 saw one such sign posted on the track’s fence and another at the entrance gate to the track.
In addition, the three attendants we watched appeared to be monitoring the races.
One was stationed at the starting area, and two others were posted in grassy areas in the center of the track, pacing back and forth to keep watch on the go-karts as they raced.
According to the Gibbses’ lawsuit, the employees at the track that day in 2015 were standing together on the track’s southside.
“The workers weren’t really paying attention to us going around the track,” said Sandwick.
Target 8 reached out to AJ’s management for comment, but no one responded.
Sandwick and her parents were able to make it to Gibbs’ bedside in England before she died in January of this year.
“I feel very thankful that was able to happen. It was peaceful. She’s at rest. She’s free now,” said Sandwick, who described her sister as bright, kind and quick to make friends.
“She always wanted to know about the person sitting in front of her,” Sandwick said. “She just really enjoyed life. She lived it to the fullest.”