Tonya Eads was one of nearly 60,000 revelers Saturday enjoying the biggest day in the Coastal Carolina Fair’s history.
Rides whipped her through cool air in Ladson. The Summerville resident and her family ate Italian sausage and fried green tomatoes.
But after 11 p.m., as Eads stood on the midway near the balloon darts, somebody screamed — but not in delight.
Eads turned to the sight of 10 people beating a man. Many were dressed in red, conjuring thoughts of gangs. Young women punched each other. Somebody got stabbed.
“Fists were flying. People were yelling,” Eads, 33, said. “It was complete chaos, and the look on my daughter’s face was complete terror.”
The brawl revived a question about whether fairs nationwide are as safe and family-friendly as promised. The U.S. Highway 78 fairgrounds were the scene of a shooting in 2010 and a beating death eight years ago. Saturday’s incident came less than a half-hour after seven people were shot at Savannah’s Coastal Empire Fairgrounds.
The melee, which was the only notable instance of violence since the fair’s opening Oct. 27, started as a man-on-man fight that eventually involved about 15 people, said Maj. Jim Brady of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. It ended after 18-year-old David Jackson was stabbed in the upper thigh and abdomen.
Jackson was taken to Medical University Hospital, but his wounds were not life-threatening.
Witnesses reported seeing three people in handcuffs and more than just 15 involved, though Brady couldn’t confirm information about possible assailants. Deputies snagged the suspects as they fled, pinning one to a candy stand.
The incident came on a record day for the 56-year-old event: 59,169 people attended. A Saturday typically draws up to 40,000.
Fair spokesman Joe Bolchoz said occasional fighting and shoving is unavoidable when thousands jam together. He couldn’t say how many off-duty deputies had been hired to work that Saturday, the most popular fair-going day of the week.
“We have a lot of police out here,” he said. “It’s a stupid place to cause trouble.”
Yet, it has happened.
An 18-year-old Walterboro resident shot a man who had been teasing and threatening to slap him at 2010’s fair. Charges against the gunman were dismissed this year after his attorney lodged a self-defense argument. At the time, a fair official said installing metal detectors would be absurd.
Six years earlier, a 21-year-old Ravenel man died after he was punched during a gang fight. An 18-year-old was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and already has served his sentence: five years on probation.
But fair security has become problematic nationwide.
A police force in Washington state banned gang members from this year’s Northwest Washington Fair after three shootings and a stabbing during the 2011 installment.
In Ladson, where 10 people were arrested on various charges last year, it’s too early to determine whether any security changes should be made, Bolchoz said.
Eads, her husband and two daughters, 12 and 16, pushed and shoved through stampeding crowds to escape the fairgrounds after the stabbing. They later fought traffic during the ride home — one that was lengthened by a crash and a roadside arrest on Interstate 26.
Eads, who missed the 2010 shooting by 30 minutes, might never return to the fair after sunset, even though she would miss the twinkling lights at night.
“I never want to go through that again,” she said. “But I will go back. I refuse to let fear control me.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.