Wednesday, April 05, 2000

Getting Son of Beast ready to roll

Kings Island rides examined for safety

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — Paramount's Kings Island is touting its Son of Beast ride as the biggest, fastest and most thrilling ride yet.

[photo] Specialized craftsmen finish the Son of Beast roller coaster.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        With less hype, park officials also assert that safety is top priority as they ready for this season after a summer marked by industry accidents.

        “What happened last year was incredibly bizarre,” park spokesman Jeff Siebert said. “Statistics show that amusement-park and attraction rides constitute one of the safest forms of recreation available.”

        While Kings Island didn't experience any serious accidents, it shut down two popular rides last summer because of fatalities on similar rides in other parks. The new “Drop Zone” was shut down in its first summer after a fatality in California on a “Drop Zone” ride there, and the King Cobra ride was idled for about a week after a death on a similar roller coaster in Virginia.

        The Drop Zone will re-open this year with additional seat restraints, while hours-long inspections of the towering Son of Beast ride will be carried out each morning well before the first park visitor arrives.

        “Safety is ... what we base our reputation on,” said Doug Kramer, manager of fire and safety at Kings Island.“We ride these rides. Our families ride these rides. So as you can see it's in our best interest, as well as our guests, to see that all of our rides are operating safely and efficiently.”

        No federal law regulates inspections and regulations vary widely. Ohio sends inspectors to amusement parks at least twice a year; Alabama is among eight states with no regulation for permanent amusement parks.

        Either way, safety falls primarily on park employees, who check for loose bolts and frayed wires every day.

        Here are deaths at amusement parks in the United States last summer:

        • March 21, 1999 — At Six Flags Over Texas theme park in Arlington, Texas, a 28-year-old Arkansas woman was killed and 10 people were injured after their raft overturned on the park's Roaring Rapids water ride.

        • June 11, 1999 — At Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., a 17-year-old girl was killed in an accident on the park's “Super Himalaya” amusement ride. The girl suffered massive internal injuries after her car flipped over, flew 10-15 feet, landed on another car, and ultimately pinned the victim to the track. Eight other people suffered minor injuries.

        • Aug. 22, 1999 — A 12-year-old boy was killed after he fell out of the “Drop Zone Stunt Tower” at Paramount's Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif. The ride, a free fall, manufactured by Intamin AG of Switzerland, features cars which are hoisted up a 224-foot tall tower and then drop 129 feet, reaching speeds of up to 62 mph.

        • Aug. 23, 1999 — A 20-year-old man died in a fall at the “Shockwave” roller coaster at Paramount's Kings Dominion theme park in Doswell, Va. The Shockwave is a stand-up-style, single-loop roller coaster.

        • Aug. 28, 1999 — A 39-year-old mother and her 8-year-old daughter were killed in accident on the “Wild Wonder” roller coaster at Gillian's Wonderland Pier in Ocean City, N.J.. Police later determined the accident was caused by mechanical malfunction. The ride had passed two inspections, including one state inspection which took place less than two months before the accident.

        • Sept. 5, 1999 — A 4-year-old British boy was killed after being thrown out of an Octopus ride at a carnival in Torrevieja, Spain.


        “Our rides go through rigorous testing including mechanical, electrical and operational checks every day before the park opens, or before one guest sets foot on any attraction,” said David Focke, vice president of maintenance and construction at Kings Island.

        Daily safety inspections can take longer than four hours, Mr. Focke said.

        Workers will walk all 7,032 feet of track on Son of Beast twice — once to check the left side and once to check the right side — when the park is open.

        They will look for loose bolts and track spikes, cracked wood and other problems.

        They will inspect the lift chain and braking mechanisms and check cars for loose bolts, cracks and safety devices that need attention.

        Each day, the coaster will first be sent around the track empty, then with technicians aboard. Technicians listen for changes in sounds — noises which might signal a loose bolt or track spike.

        “If there's ever any question about the safety of any ride, we shut it down immediately,” Mr. Focke said Nevertheless, amusement parks don't like to talk about accidents, said George Rogers, a Toledo attorney who represented the family of a woman killed at Kings Island in 1991.

        “These companies are very concerned about anything that could shake the confidence of people coming to their parks,” he said after last summer's series of accidents.

        The federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) said there was a 87 percent increase in amusement-park ride injuries from 1994 to 1998 (2,400 in 1994 and 4,500 in 1998).

        CPSC also reported the four roller-coaster deaths last year were nearly double the annual average over the past two decades.

        Those statistics prompted federal legislation to give CPSC regulatory authority over amusement-park rides. The bill is pending in the U.S. House. It would allow CPSC to set standards for rides, perform inspections, investigate accidents, recall unsafe equipment and impose civil penalties.

        Industry officials said last summer was an aberration and federal regulation will do little to improve the industry's safety record.

        “We have over 300 million visitors come to our parks each year and provide more than a billion rides,” said John Graff, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “The government's records, not ours, show that ride injury incidents are one in 25 million, while fatalities are one in 450 million.

        “Those numbers have remained steady ever since they started keeping track of them 20 years ago, despite the fact that attendance keeps going up,” he added. “I don't think there is much more the federal government could do to improve on that safety record.”

        Overall, amusement rides in Ohio have a good safety record, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which is required to inspect each ride at least twice a year.

        Rides are checked before the season opens in May, again a few weeks before the season ends in September, and sometimes there are spot inspections during the season, said Deb Abbott, a department spokeswoman. Eight inspectors, who are required to take 80 hours of continuing education each year, checked 2,011 rides last year.

        Ohio amusement rides each bear a permanent brass numbered plate that serves as a perpetual license number. After the ride is inspected, a dated sticker is applied to the plate to show the ride is in compliance with state mandates.

        “We have one of the best amusement-ride inspection processes in the country,” Ms. Abbott said. “Ohio is one of only two states — Florida being the other — that have a full-time inspection programs ... Our program is looked upon as a model for many other states.”

        Thirty-eight people have reported ride-related injuries in Ohio since 1995. State law requires reports only on injuries that require hospitalization.

        Ohio's three largest amusement parks — Kings Island, Cedar Point in Sandusky and Six Flags Ohio, formerly called Geauga Lake, in Aurora — had about 8 million visitors last year, including 3.3 million at Kings Island. Of those 8 million visitors, the Department of Agriculture recorded five injury accidents.

        One of those accidents occurred at Kings Island when a visitor was injured while exiting a ride, Ms. Abbott said. It was only the second injury accident at the park since 1995.

        The other occurred in 1996 when a patron violently hit the bottom of a swimming pool after coming off of a water slide at Kings Island's Water Works park.

        Nineteen people have been hospitalized in Kentucky in the past two years following ride-related accidents, according to the Kentucky Division of Regulation and Inspection, whose 18 inspectors check rides once a year.

        There haven't been any serious accidents reported in Indiana since a woman was killed and her granddaughter was paralyzed after a miniature train derailed and overturned in 1996 at the now-defunct Old Indiana Fun-n-Water Park in Thorntown.

        That train was approved by state inspectors, but another review after the accident found the train's brakes were broken and anti-derailment devices were missing. Three inspectors later resigned.

        A year after the fatal accident, Indiana lawmakers approved tougher regulations for amusement operators and began requiring inspectors to be certified by a national peer group.

        Ohio's Department of Agriculture says 80 percent of all ride accidents it records are caused by patron or some other human error.

        Ohio was one of the first states to implement the Rider Responsibility Law, which requires patrons to obey all warnings and directions regarding thrill rides and behave in a manner that will not cause or contribute to injury to themselves or others. Failure to comply with the law is a misdemeanor.

        “The law serves as a deterrent to dangerous horseplay by patrons, which is the major cause of most amusement ride accidents,” said Ms. Abbott.


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