New Jersey community grieves 'beloved' Hailey McMullen, 10, after her deadly fall from amusement ride

USA Today 1 month ago

ROSENHAYN, N.J. — The 10-year-old girl tragically killed after being thrown from an amusement ride Saturday night was remembered as one of her school's "beloved students," according to district administration

Deerfield Township School District Chief Administrator Mary Steinhauer-Kula, in an alert to the school community, identified the girl as a Hailey McMullen, a fifth-grade student. New Jersey State Police confirmed the victim's identity to The Daily Journal on Monday. 

Steinhauer-Kula's message stated, in part: 

"It is with deep and profound sadness that I inform you of the loss of one of our beloved students. Hailey McMullen, a 5th grade student, was involved in a tragic accident last evening at the Harvest Festival. Our thoughts and prayers are with Hailey's family, our entire school community and all who knew and loved her." 

State police say McMullen was ejected from the amusement ride "Xtreme" around 6:18 p.m. Saturday at the annual Deerfield Township Harvest Festival and suffered serious injuries in the fall.

She was airlifted to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where she was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m., according to state police. 

Deerfield Township Elementary School was closed Monday for Columbus Day. "When we return to school on Tuesday, we will have grief counselors from our school and surrounding districts to support our students and staff at this most difficult time," Steinhauer-Kula said in her message.

On Monday, a balloon memorial for McMullen at the nearby Dollar General was growing by the dozens.

Krystal DeFeo, an assistant manager at the store, told The Daily Journal on Monday it was co-worker Shari Leverett's idea to start the memorial. 

"We were both at the festival the night that occurred, just feet away," DeFeo said. "(Leverett) lost her 10-year-old daughter a few years ago to childhood cancer, so it was very close to her heart. So, the next morning she came in and made the sign and purchased the first 10 balloons in memory of her and put them out, and it just kind of grew from there." 

"We just wanted to show the family that we care," said DeFeo, adding the McMullens occasionally shop at the store. "It's nice that the community is stepping up and showing that it cares, and it's beautiful, the light is shining down on the balloons, and it just gives me chills."

DeFeo said she never could have imagined being a witness to such an incident. 

"It was petrifying, it was chaotic, to say the least," DeFeo said. "It felt like a movie, like slow motion. People were running towards it, people were running away, it was just scary.

"My son goes to school with her, they didn't know each other, but they go to the same school and we're a small community, and my son can't unsee what he saw that night," DeFeo continued. "It's terrible, we saw the actual incident occur, the very aftermath like right as soon as it happened. They couldn't contain the chaos for the first few moments after it happened." 

Skelly's Amusements was the provider of rides at the four-day festival, which kicked off Thursday.

According to the Deerfield Township Harvest Festival website, Skelly's has handled rides for the event for three decades. 

Saturday's death was a first for the company, Skelly's spokesman Rick Marchione told The Daily Journal from the festival grounds on Monday. 

"Like we've been punched in the gut," Marchione said of how the company is feeling in the wake of McMullen's death. 

In a Facebook statement Sunday morning, Skelley's said, "We are fully cooperating with the investigation being conducted by the State Police and the Carnival and Amusement Ride unit within the Department of Community Affairs (DCA)."

Marchione said the company was aware of people on social media making accusations and blaming Skelly's for McMullen's death, adding "it's the easiest thing to do."  

He stood behind Skelly's commitment to safety. 

"Amusement rides, in general, are safe," Marchione said. "Skelly's Amusements have an excellent history with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs in their ride safety programs, their employee training programs, and we are inspected occasionally in what they call operational, which means an inspector from DCA will come unannounced, maybe not even wearing identification at that point, and they will walk around and observe. I know of several that have been done.

"We've always had no problems with that," Marchione continued. "We've never had issues where any of those inspectors have found anything. We also have staff that walk around and monitor this throughout the day. So we stand behind our safety program, our employee training program, how the inspections are done, and we feel as diligent as the state of New Jersey is, we feel fortunate and honored that we operate in this state through their stringent criteria."

State police on Monday had no new information to provide and said the investigation remains ongoing. 

Follow Anthony V. Coppola on Twitter: @AVCoppola

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