by Danny Miller
As a college student in Rochester, NY, I know multiple people who hail from the Buffalo/Niagara/Rochester region. Many of them have been to Darien Lake multiple times, and I myself attended the park for the first time on opening day of last season. It should come as no surprise then, that many people had come to me to ask my opinion on the July 8 incident, that saw Sgt. James Hackemer, an Iraq War Veteran, be thrown from the Ride Of Steel roller coaster at the park to his death.
In case you are not familiar, there are numerous other articles regarding the incident on the site here, but essentially what happened was that Hackemer, who had lost both legs in the war, had approached the ride, and was permitted to ride. At the bottom of the first drop, the ride makes a large left hand turn that hugs the ground. It was here that the dynamics of the train banking hard to the left is what caused Hackemer to leave the ride vehicle, ultimately resulting in his death.
After investigation, it was determined that the ride had not malfunctioned, and everything had been working properly in terms of the mechanics of the ride. It was determined, however, that the operators of the ride did not observe proper safety measures, and that Hackemer should not have been permitted to ride according to rider safety policies.
Now the first thing is to clarify the nature of the situation in terms of what operators were dealing with. Hackemer had lost one leg completely and part of a hip, while having the other leg amputated at the knee joint. Keeping this in mind, we also know that Ride Of Steel’s harnesses are simply a seat belt and a lap bar that pins riders in at their waist. From my experience as a ride operator, larger coasters, regardless of restraint type, usually require riders to have at least three sufficient functioning extremities (that would be legs BELOW the knee or arms BELOW the elbow), as well as an appropriate center of gravity. If this is the case, then an argument could be made that Hackemer met the three extremities requirement, but with a good portion of weight absent from his lower body, this would shift his center of gravity up above the waistline, which would easily explain the lap bar not pinning him into the vehicle properly.
In addition, while highly unlikely given the circumstances, it is also possible that Hackemer was wearing long pants, in which case it may not have been evident of his condition, which technically speaking is something the operators may not be able to ask about unless the rider makes his/her condition known. Judging by the results of the investigation, this was not the case, but at the time of the incident, it was a reasonable possibility.
All things considered, this unfortunate event did take place and the ride operators were at fault, but Darien Lake has now taken increased measures to ensure their operators are properly trained as well as taking additional precautions. Unfortunately, in an unrelated incident, the chain lift of the ride had broken in August, closing the ride for the remainder of the season shortly after reopening following the Hackemer incident. There is no doubt in my mind that the ride is safe, and will only open for riders when it had been determined to be safe for all riders who meet the rider admission policy. The park and the ride are slated to open on May 12.
For Darien Lake as a whole, it is crucial that they keep Ride Of Steel running everyday throughout the season. It is an exceptional ride despite its age, and the park has not seen any major additions recently, with the Motocoaster being the last roller coaster that has been added to the park in 2008. The coaster lineup features an average lineup with only one wooden coaster that is aging and in need of some attention, as well as some older rides and a few clones. Despite Ride Of Steel being a clone of sorts of its own, it is no doubt the star attraction at the park and the one big thing that will draw people to the park until more additions come. That makes 2012 a season where everything must be running properly and everyone must be on top of their game, as the park can ill afford to lose their star attraction for any length of time this season.