Six Flags ride to remain closed as death is investigated

Posted Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Six Flags over Texas said Saturday that the Texas Giant roller coaster will remain closed until the end of an in-house investigation into the falling death of a Dallas woman who, a witness said, expressed worry that she wasn’t properly fastened into her seat on the showcase attraction.

Local media outlets identified the victim as Rosy Esparza, a south Dallas resident. Relatives said Friday was her first visit to Six Flags. Officials said she was 52. The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office has released no information.

Neither the Arlington police nor fire department are participating in the ongoing probe, which for the time being is being solely undertaken by the amusement park’s owner.

Mayor Robert Cluck said he had no information on the investigation, but said: “It’s just a tragedy. We have not had an accident out there in a long time. I was very shocked when I heard about it and I’m very sorry for the family.”

Six Flags spokeswoman Sharon Parker said, “If the state chooses to conduct an investigation, the Texas Department of Insurance would designate someone.” Attempts to reach insurance department spokespersons on Saturday were unsuccessful.

Parker declined to comment on a report that the roller coaster had been checked on Friday before the mishap, which occurred shortly after 6:30 p.m. The spokeswoman also did not reply when asked in an email how often the Texas Giant had been inspected and by whom, and if any concern had been expressed that the ride was made too steep when it was redesigned and given more height in 2009-11.

“We are committed to determine the cause of this tragic accident and will utilize every resource throughout this process,” Parker said in a prepared statement. “It would be a disservice to the family to speculate regarding what transpired. When we have new information to provide, we will do so. Our thoughts, prayers and full support remain with the family.”

Other rides at the Arlington facility remained open although a Saturday night concert by Bridgit Mendler was canceled.

The amusement park industry has fought attempts by lawmakers to strengthen regulations, saying that its safety record is excellent considering the millions of visitors experiencing their rides.

Before he was recently elected senator, Edward Markey as a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade to pass legislation that would have restored federal scrutiny.

In 2011, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions said that expanding the role of the Consumer Product Safety Commission would not improve safety because parks are subject to one or more layers of independent examination, including state and local government, insurers and private safety firms. It noted that in 2009 there was just one injury per 1 million customers.

Until Friday’s fatality, the Texas Giant has had four reported injuries, all of them minor, since it reopened two years ago.

In July 2012, a 46-year-old woman was “jostled” by the roller coaster and received a contusion on her left arm, and a 28-year-old man tripped and lacerated a big toe, according to the Texas Department of Insurance, which tracks accidents at amusement parks. The two 2011 accidents occurred before the patrons could board the ride.

The two-year renovation, led by Rocky Mountain Construction, included placing a steel track on the wooden coaster which was mostly torn down and rebuilt with new wood during the process.

“It has bank turns over 90 degrees so it actually kind of rotates upside down at some points of the ride and none of that could be done with the old technology,” Six Flags Over Texas president Steve Martindale said when the coaster reopened in 2011.

According to the website of the German amusement ride maker Gerstlauer, new “magnetic brakes, spring mounted wheels, and hydraulic lap bars with a traditional saddle horn make the new Texas Giant trains safe and unique at the same time.”

Witnesses said Esparza “basically tumbled over,” perhaps when the ride made a sudden turn, and disappeared into the evening.

John and Darlene Putman of Rockwall said they were in line Friday when the Giant returned from its fatal run. They saw an agitated man and woman in their 20s climb out of a car.

“They were screaming, ‘My mom! My mom! Let us out, we need to go get her!’” John Putman said.

Ride operators spoke with the couple, and one made a call. They put on helmets and headed for an area under the coaster, the Putmans said.

One of the riders, Carment Brown of Arlington, said she watched Esparza ask one of the Six Flag ride attendants to make sure she was correctly fastened because her lap bar did not click more than once. “Everybody else is like, ‘Click, click, click,'” she told the Dallas Morning News. “Hers only clicked once. Hers was the only one that went down once, and she didn’t feel safe, but they let her still get on the ride. That could have been me.”

Brown said the woman “basically tumbled over.”

Another witness, Kanisha Howell, told CBS 11 that she and her daughter watched the coaster rise from their place in line.

"When it got in the air and started coming down, I don't know if she had a seizure or what, but she fell out of the cart and just fell out of the sky,” Howell said.

Park visitors David Leal, 18, and Halee Rice, 17, of Farmersville said they waited 45 minutes before riding the Texas Giant earlier in the evening because the coaster was undergoing testing. It was unknown whether the delay was related to the fatal accident.

Also Friday, an Ohio amusement park's thrill ride malfunctioned when a boat accidentally rolled backward down a hill and flipped over in water, injuring all seven people on it, The Associated Press reported. Operators stopped the Shoot the Rapids water ride after the accident, said officials with Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, west of Cleveland.

Originally opened in 1990, the Texas Giant reopened in 2011 after a $10 million renovation, which included installation of a steel track.

The ride rises 14 stories high and boasts a 79-degree first drop, the steepest in the world for wooden roller coasters, a bank of 95 degrees and a speed of 65 mph.

Friday’s death was the park’s second involving a guest. In 1999, a 28-year-old Arkansas woman died and 10 others were injured when a boat capsized on the Roaring Rapids ride.

In 2006, nine park patrons were injured on the Texas Tornado when one of the mechanical bearings that spins the ride malfunctioned.

In the 1968, a park worker died when the El Sombrero ride was accidentally turned on while it was being worked on. Another worker was killed by a truck on the site five years earlier.

Staff writers Susan McFarland, Patrick Walker and Sarah Bahari contributed to this report.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock

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