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Family describes loss of carnival worker Michael Austin

Left, Michael Austin, 22 of Mastic, who was

Left, Michael Austin, 22 of Mastic, who was killed after being hit in the head by a ride at the Feast of Mother Cabrini festival in Brentwood. Right, police guard the scene of the accident, a ride called "Scat". (Sept. 1, 2012) Credit: Handout / Daniel Brennan

The aunt of a carnival worker killed when he was struck in the head by a spinning amusement ride in Brentwood rushed to his side and found him still clinging to life.

Within moments of the accident at the Feast of Mother Cabrini festival around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, he was able to open his eyes and squeeze her hand, which the family took as signs Michael Austin, 22, would live, said one of his three sisters, Michelle Holfester, 29, of Mastic Beach.

But Austin, of Mastic, died at Stony Brook University Hospital just before midnight, soon after a neurologist said even if surgery successfully relieved pressure on his brain, Austin would live the rest of his life in a vegetative state, Holfester said.

"My heart sank," she said. "From the moment he was hit, he was already done. The damage was that bad to the brain . . . There was no point in even doing the surgery.

"We were all there," Holfester wept. "All of us."

Ride owner Pete Zorlenzan was there, too.

And friends kept pouring into the hospital, expecting to see Austin in recovery.

"They show up and he was already gone," Holfester said. "They didn't even get to say goodbye."

In Austin's family, carnival work is anything but unusual. A sister worked at carnivals, as have numerous other relatives.

So three weeks ago when an opportunity for a carnival job opened up for Austin -- to set up and operate amusement rides -- he jumped at the offer.

Then, tragedy struck.

Austin reached to fetch something Saturday night under a spinning ride called the Scat -- in which riders stand in rotating baskets perched on spinning arms -- and the machinery hit him in the head as he stood up, Zorlenzan said.

He said Austin may have been reaching to change the soundtrack on an iPod beneath the ride, one of about 25 at the crowded Feast of Mother Cabrini festival in Brentwood.

None of the 16 riders aboard was hurt.

His sister said he relished his job at the carnival.

"He liked the girls, the music, the atmosphere -- everything," Holfester said. "He was always laughing and having a good time. He loved it. He said it didn't feel like work. It felt like being with friends. I kept telling him, 'You're crazy, you're crazy, you're crazy.' "

The death is the subject of separate investigations by the Suffolk Police Homicide Squad, the state Labor Department and the federal workplace safety agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

An envelope arrived for the family during the weekend with about $1,000 to defray funeral expenses, money collected by fellow carnival workers.

Austin -- the youngest sibling and the only boy in his family -- leaves behind his father, mother and three sisters.

"All she ever wanted was a boy," Holfester said of her mother. "That was her baby."

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