A teenager fell about 25 feet from a stopped gondola ride at an upstate New York amusement park Saturday night, tumbling into a crowd of park guests and employees gathered below to catch her before she hit the ground. (June 25)
The heroic actions of an amusement park patron in Upstate New York two days ago may have saved the life of a 14-year-old girl and revived a question almost as old as summer: Just how safe are those wild rides?
Matthew Howard was at a Six Flags Great Escape Amusement Park on Saturday when he saw the girl dangling from the Sky Ride, 25 feet in the air. He persuaded the girl to let go, and he and a group of people on the ground caught her.
Howard was treated for minor back injuries and released from a hospital. The girl was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. While that event had a mostly happy ending, some do not.
Seven months ago, at Dreamworld in Australia, a malfunction caused two people to be ejected from a raft and two others somehow trapped in the water or machinery of a river rapids ride. All four people died.
In the days that followed, amusement park consultant Ken Martin warned that, due to a mixed bag of oversight rules, Americans should not feel exempt from such horrors.
“It’s not a matter of whether it’s going to happen, it’s when,” Martin, an amusement park safety consultant told USA TODAY. “The conditions exist.”
In fact, tragedy has already happened here. Less than a year ago, a 10-year-old boy died and two women were injured in an accident on a giant slide at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas.
Martin said Australia’s rides are at least subject to federal oversight. The U.S. has virtually no federal oversight, with individual states “doing their own thing.” In some states that is very little, Martin said.
“They will investigate it faster and they will learn more from it than any investigation in the U.S.,” Martin said of Australian investigators after the accident.
U.S. fixed-site amusement and theme parks — permanent sites such as Disney and Six Flags parks — attract about 335 million patrons who take 1.6 billion rides a year, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). The likelihood of serious injury is 1 in 16 million, IAAPA said.
Though the rides in those parks are generally safe, enough accidents occur each year that a more comprehensive oversight system should be put in place, said Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Martin wants federal oversight.
The IAAPA is not so sure. Spokeswoman Colleen Mangone told USA TODAY there are “well-designed” international standards for design, construction, operation and maintenance of rides that are written into laws in many states.
“There is no evidence federal oversight would improve on the already excellent safety record of the industry,” Mangone said.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is responsible for overseeing and investigating injuries at traveling carnivals and temporary rides at county fairs, though it doesn’t conduct inspections, said Patty Davis, a commission spokeswoman. The commission sets voluntary safety standards.
The commission used to oversee all amusement parks, but in the early 1980s, Congress removed fixed-site parks from its realm. Martin says it would be difficult to win approval for federal oversight.
“In a nutshell, our amusement park industry has a very powerful lobby in Washington,” Martin said.
Martin noted that rides draw heavy traffic each season. They are turned on in the morning and run continuously into the night. And the problems aren’t always mechanical — human error in raft inflation and other tasks often play a role in accidents, he said.
Riders generally wearing seat belts, which could make escape difficult if a raft submerges or flips. And many riders can’t even swim, he added.
“It’s always terrible when people get killed,” Martin said. “The question is, what are we willing to do to make these rides safer?”
Contributing: Rick Jervis
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