by Danny Miller
There are both facts and opinions in this blog. These opinions are based on extensive research that I've done on my own and from my extensive knowledge as an engineer, ride operator, avid coaster enthusiast and the facts gathered over the last several days. I believe that prior to sharing opinions and starting speculation, facts must be identified, and I do so here.
Saying that this past week has been a roller coaster week would be putting it quite lightly. The week started with the Kings Island 2014 project gaining more and more speculation amid pictures surfacing from the Ohio steel plant (although these pictures have since been deemed unrelated to the Kings Island project). My personal sources claim that the Kings Island project will indeed be a B&M, so track should be arriving on site very soon, meaning that we will see it at the plant even sooner.
Thursday evening, I was sent a survey supposedly from Darien Lake regarding a “concept we are considering for the 2014 season.” I have yet to confirm it was a real survey from the park, but I will be heading to the park this week (likely Monday) to check out the area for signs of construction. If there is indeed a new attraction of this type coming, it will be something that brings Darien Lake to the top of many “must visit” lists.
The week was filled with excitement and eagerness. That all changed on Friday evening when reports of not one, but two severe accidents at major U.S. theme parks came out. At Cedar Point, a park I have visited on two occasions this season, their flume ride, Shoot The Rapids, saw a boat slide back down one of the lift hills, injuring seven riders. At a park I visited in December, Six Flags Over Texas, the New Texas Giant, my 300th roller coaster, saw a women coming loose from her restraint and falling from the ride during its course.
Immediately, all attention within the industry turned to the two incidents, with fans as well as members of the general public and news media asking what went wrong. As a former ride operator and engineering student in college, I feel that I am one of the more informed enthusiasts when it comes to combining ride safety and mechanics and their role in how the rides function. With that being said, I’d like to offer what I know, what I don’t know, and what I think about what has happened in the last few days.
I’ll start with the Shoot The Rapids incident since it seems to be much easier to point out exactly what went wrong. In the image shown (taken from a post on a different message board), it is clear to see that there are multiple design flaws with the boats on the ride. First, notice the lack of guide wheels (on the side of the running wheels, NOT the ones on the side of the boat) and up-stop wheel (underneath the track). Typical flume rides use a non-slip belt to elevate the boats, but Shoot The Rapids uses a more conventional lift. This means the use of anti-rollbacks (the source of the famous clicking noise) are necessary to avoid boats sliding back down the lift in the event of a lift stop.
The lack of these two types of wheels may have both contributed to why this incident occurred. First, the lack of guide wheels on the outside or inside of the rails means the boat is prone to not aligning properly when entering the lift. The running wheels are contoured to fit the rail shape, but this design is not redundant in ensuring the train tracks properly. Imagine a side-friction coaster that lacks sideboards the keep the train aligned. The wheels could be cocked at an angle, causing the boat to skew and subsequently cause the anti-rollbacks to not engage as intended.
Second, the lack of up-stop wheels plays a big role in possible malfunction of the anti-rollbacks even if the train is aligned properly. If you ride most wooden coasters, when the front car engages the lift, you will feel the wheels pop a wheelie and bang back down on the rails. The sudden force of the chain jerks the train, causing the front wheels to rise. Wooden coasters have up-stop wheels to prevent the car from doing what is essentially just a back flip. There is a lock in the middle of the track to keep the boats on the track, but a misalignment issue could prevent this from functioning properly.
With no up-stop wheels, the boat is free to rise until the anti-rollbacks no longer do their job. Is this what happened on Shoot The Rapids? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Either way, there is almost no doubt that the fault here lies somewhere within the design work by Intamin, a topic that once again will surface with this incident. Thankfully, those who were involved are okay, and a giant hats-off to the bystanders that rushed to their aid alongside park personnel.
In the case of New Texas Giant, there seems to be much less certainty as to how exactly the incident occurred. A woman boarded the train, and presumably was thrown from the ride at a spot on the ride where the track turns and drops simultaneously. Several witnesses took to social media, including one that claimed to be sitting two rows behind the rider in question. This witness mentioned that the harness released and “she was gone.” This is where I take issue for the first time.
All ride harnesses (at least on more intense rides like New Texas Giant), are at the very least double redundant, meaning there is more than one mechanism keeping the restraint locked. These are inspected every day, ensuring that they will not malfunction, but in the freak case that they do, there is another system keeping the rider safe. I can with the utmost confidence say that the safety bar did not, I repeat, DID NOT release. Most enthusiasts know how safe the rides are, and New Texas Giant is no different.
Another witness, this one from the station, who was to board the following train, claims that the rider in question told the operator checking her harness that she did not feel safe. Some have said, “then the operator should have let her off.” Keep in mind it is NOT the responsibility of the operator to decide if the rider should ride or not in this case. If the woman is in proper physical condition to ride the ride, and the decision to ride or not is purely based on mental or emotional feelings, the onus is on the rider to decide whether or not to ride. If a rider expresses a safety concern, the operator’s responsibility is to ensure the rider that they are safe, not to tell them to get off, however if the rider asks to get off the ride, the operator is then obligated to allow them to exit. According to the witness, the rider did not ask to exit the ride, meaning the decision to ride was voluntary.
The witness from the station also says that the rider expressed concern that her bar, “only clicked once,” while others clicked three or more times. This is where another fact comes into play. New Texas Giant uses a double hydraulic locking method on its harnesses, meaning they do not click. B&M’s inverted coasters feature ratcheting harnesses that click and only have so many positions. Most Intamin coasters, like Millennium Force, have hydraulic harnesses that will lock at any position. On New Texas Giant, to ensure they are secure, a green light (either on the train on the operator panel) corresponds with each seat. A train CANNOT be dispatched unless all harnesses are locked and their corresponding green light is lit, meaning that the harness was secured when the train departed, as well as when it returned to the station (it is known that the harness was down when the train returned).
With my knowledge of rides, and having worked at a park experiencing the general public on a daily basis, it should be pointed out that the general public knows very little in terms of the technical aspects of the rides and their safety systems. To say a harness released during the ride on a ride of this size is, quite simply, nonsense. The first question I asked was, “was the rider either mentally disabled or of larger body dimensions?” There are a handful of well-documented incidents of riders with mental disabilities being injured or killed on rides from attempting to escape from the restraints. There are also several recent incidents of larger persons being injured due to the restraints malfunctioning due to their “body dimensions,” be it long legs, broad shoulders, extreme height, or large stomachs.
Yesterday, the victim’s name was released, and a photo was also given alongside, and some believe that the victim falls into the category of “large body dimensions.” This points to the simple assertion that her size may have prevented the restraint from functioning properly even though it was properly secured. Unlike the recent incident at Darien Lake involving a war veteran however, this does not seem to be the fault of the operators for allowing someone to ride who should not have.
A guest with “larger body dimensions” may have what is known as an improper center of gravity (COG). All harnesses are designed to pin a rider into their seat at their COG, typically at or near the waistline. In the case of the Darien Lake incident, the double-amputee was missing a significant amount of his lower body, shifting his COG up above the lap bar, which resulted in him being ejected from the ride. In the case of the New Texas Giant though, it seems that the rider had properly functioning extremities and no obvious shift in COG. So what went wrong?
That continues to be the million-dollar question at this point. It is entirely possible that the dynamic nature of the ride combined with the dimensions of the rider simply caused her to be thrown from the ride in a freak accident. Unfortunately, the fault in this case would not sit with the park, but instead the train manufacturer, Gerstlauer. This is because their system signaled that the restraint was secure and the rider was safe, which obviously was not the case. If the rider had no part in coming loose, then the onus is with the manufacturer.
Where the fault lies in this case could be up for debate, because if the rider met all conditions for boarding the ride, the operators would have no reason to not allow her to ride. Another possibility is that she simply attempted to break free from the harness, and while unlikely, it would not be the first case of such an occurrence. I had also heard reports that she had a seizure or panic attack once on the ride after it began, which would be far more interesting because such an event would cause the rider to lose control of their body, meaning coming free from a harness would be entirely possible.
This is the exact reason that riders with pre-existing conditions such as a history of seizures are not allowed to ride. So does this then place the fault on the operators for allowing her to ride? As it turns out, no. Being prone to seizures and similar events is what is called an “invisible pre-existing condition,” meaning it cannot be detected by eye. If an operator hears a rider say that they are prone to seizures, then they can order the rider to exit the ride, as they are not allowed to board under the rider admission policy. Much like if a rider is pregnant, these conditions cannot always be detected, but if an operator is suspicious, a generic announcement may be made, but an operator may NOT ask a rider “are you pregnant?” in order to decide if they can ride. Instead, the onus falls on the rider to read signs and know that if they have a pre-existing condition, they should not ride.
Gerstlauer made the trains on New Texas Giant, while the ride itself was re-done by Rocky Mountain Construction in 2011. Friday evening after the incident, Pandemonium, Six Flags Over Texas’s spinning coaster, also made by Gerstlauer, was closed for the remainder of the evening. It re-opened on Saturday morning while New Texas Giant remains closed for investigation. Iron Rattler at nearby Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio has also closed until further notice, likely since the trains are very similar technically to those on New Texas Giant. Several other Gerstlauer rides have remained open, but Hersheypark’s SooperDooperLooper was closed Saturday morning indefinitely. Many will note that the ride was retrofitted with Gerstlauer trains at the start of last season.
My last point tonight is simply that the general news media blows incidents like this way out of context, and falsely makes the amusement industry look as if it is unsafe. It is not. In fact, amusement parks are just about the safest place to be in the world today. On average, there are nearly 100 fatal car crashes on Earth every DAY, while there are less than 5 in amusement parks per YEAR. Yearly, 800 lives in households are claimed per year by drowning, more than 160 times MORE than those in parks. And of those incidents at parks, over 80% of them occur on carousels. The bottom line, strapping into a coaster car is one of the safest things to do on this Earth. The media takes these rare occurrences and makes them into stories that lead viewers to believe they are common. Don’t be fooled.
Is it possible that something completely different is responsible for the two incidents described? Sure. Is it likely? Maybe not so much. The bottom line is that people are hurt, physically and emotionally, and someone has lost their life, and that is not cool. Some are saying online that the parks do not care about the safety of their guests, and that is simply not true. Stay tuned to COASTER-net here, on Facebook, and Twitter for the latest with both of these stories.