Did victim’s weight play role in Six Flags death?

Posted Monday, Jul. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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By the end of her ride on the Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., Amanda Scott of Oklahoma says, she felt as if she was hanging on for dear life.

The $10 million, 16-story attraction, which opened this year, is touted as having the world’s steepest drop for a wooden roller coaster.

Like the Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas, where a woman fell to her death July 19, the Outlaw Run uses a lap bar as a restraint. But Scott, who says she is “admittedly overweight,” said she felt that her lap bar didn’t go down very far, though it was secure and checked by the park attendant.

And when the ride reached its top speed, Scott says, her body shape changed and spread out from the gravitational forces, leaving a gap between herself and the bar. She recalls moving around so much during the ride that by the end she was clutching the seat in front of her.

“It was scary,” said Scott, of Owasso, who contacted the Star-Telegram to share her experience after hearing about the tragedy at Six Flags. “I honestly felt like I was falling out. What happened to that woman could have happened to me. I’m guessing lap bars aren’t safe for larger people.”

The restraint system on the Texas Giant has become a focal point of the inquiry into the July 19 death of Rosa Ayala-Gaona, 52, who was flung from the third row of cars as the coaster began a steep descent. She fell 75 feet and landed on a metal roof.

The issue of weight

But some are also wondering whether her weight could have played a role in the accident.

Weight was cited as a factor in two deaths in which riders were ejected from Six Flags roller coasters.

In 2004, a 55-year-old man fell to his death at Six Flags New England in Springfield, Mass. According to The New York Times, the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety concluded in a report that he was not properly secured in his seat because he was so overweight. The man’s girth prevented a T-shape lap bar from fitting firmly against him on the Superman Ride of Steel, the report said.

The ride, now called Bizarro, is ranked as the second-best steel roller coaster in 2011 by Amusement Today, according to Six Flags’ website.

In 1978 at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, during its first summer in operation, the Colossus roller coaster ejected a 20-year-old female rider on a speed hill. She was reportedly not fastened securely in her seat because of her weight and fell to her death. The ride is still operating, according to the park’s website.

Sharon Parker, communications manager for Six Flags Over Texas, declined last week to answer questions about whether Ayala-Gaona’s weight is a factor in the investigation, whether the ride had a weight restriction and whether Six Flags uses measuring belts or “test yourself” seats at the Arlington park. Texas law does not require any state investigation into amusement park deaths, so the park itself is handling the inquiry.

The amusement park’s website only lists a 48-inch height requirement for the Texas Giant. The ride opened in 1990 and underwent a $10 million renovation to add a steel track and reopened in April 2011.

“Utilizing both internal and external experts, we are investigating the cause of the accident, and until that process is complete, we have no additional information to share with you about the incident,” Parker said.

The Texas Giant remains closed as park and other officials, reportedly including representatives from Gerstlauer, the German amusement ride manufacturer that built the coaster’s cars, investigate the accident. Grand-Prairie-based Six Flags Entertainment has also temporarily closed the Iron Rattler, a similar ride at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, also built by Gerstlauer.

Gerstlauer did not respond to a request last week for comment.

ME’s report

The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office said the woman’s weight will be included in an autopsy report but said the report will not be released until the investigation is complete. Officials said she weighed over 200 pounds.

Reports from witnesses interviewed after the accident raised questions about whether the T-shape lap bar may not have secured Ayala-Gaona properly because of her size and girth. Some told reporters that she was concerned that she was not secure and said her restraint didn’t click three times as it did in the other cars.

Joel Bullock, author of the enthusiasts’ www.thecoastercritic.com website, who rode the redesigned Texas Giant just before it opened to the public two years ago, said the hydraulic T-shape lap bar on the Texas Giant moves smoothly with no clicking noises, so the witness accounts “don’t add up.”

YouTube video of the ride shows that park attendants walk along the cars and push the restraint down to make sure it’s in place. It has a knob that riders can hold onto.

Bullock said that the lap bars basically “staple” a rider in place and that it would be impossible for anyone to push the bar up.

Moreover, if a restraint were not properly in place, ride operators wouldn’t be given a green light at the control panel to let the ride start, said Bullock, who has ridden about 250 roller coasters. The Texas Giant is on his Top 10 list.

The T-shape lap bar is supposed to rest on the rider’s upper thigh but may hit a different part of the body depending on the person’s weight and height.

“That’s the issue,” Bullock said. “It’s a question of body shapes.”

At Silver Dollar City, spokeswoman Lisa Rau said that the Outlaw Run roller coaster has no weight restrictions but that the park uses a “test chair” to see whether a large person will fit safely on the ride. If a body size doesn’t work, park attendants may ask the person to leave the ride, which also has shin restraints.

Rau said the park was not made aware of any problems by Scott, and Scott says she did not report her experience on the ride because she felt there was no negligence.

Operations scrutinized

The fatal accident in Arlington has safety experts industrywide scrutinizing policies and operations. Their findings could have far-reaching implications on ride designers and manufacturers, and on consumers.

“We obviously will look at the accident,” said Leonard Morrissey, staff manager at the American Society of Testing and Materials International, a leading independent organization that has developed some 12,000 standards used worldwide to improve product quality and enhance safety.

Morrissey said determining what type of restraint is installed on a roller coaster requires careful calculations and takes into consideration the G-forces caused by acceleration during the ride.

A bigger body mass will be subject to higher G-forces, according to Gforces.net. Excessive G-forces can render a person unconscious.

The Six Flags investigation will look into whether the rider, the ride operations or the equipment caused the accident, or a combination of factors, Morrissey said.

“There is a cause,” Morrissey said. “We’ll see what comes out of this.”

Alan Arena, president of A.K.A. Engineering in Chino, Calif., an engineering and consulting firm to theme parks, also said different roller coasters require different restraint systems. Choosing the right one depends on what happens in the ride and how the body gets pull up against it, he said.

“Safety is so important,” Arena said. “The whole industry is getting better. It’s a business and at the end of the day, you are selling an image; you’re selling fun. The last thing you want people worrying about is not being safe.”

The International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions said it is not involved in Six Flags’ investigation but said it will share information learned from it with its members. Whether consumers see changes depends on the findings, the group said.

“Events like this are extremely rare,” association spokeswoman Colleen Mangone said in an email response to questions. “The majority of injuries that occur on rides happen because the rider did not follow the ride guidelines or rode with a pre-existing medical condition.”

In 2011, 1,415 ride-related injuries were reported, up 18 percent from 2010, and of those 405, or about 29 percent, were on roller coasters, according to a March IAAPA and National Safety Council report.

The odds of being fatally injured on a ride are 1 in 750 million, based on an average five rides per person, the association says.

Coaster enthusiast Bullock said he will continue riding unless restraint safety comes into question.

“If that’s the case, I’m done,” Bullock said. “I’ll find a new hobby if I have to.”

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727 Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST

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