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Seven Still in Hospital After 'Freak Accident' at Stadium

January 18, 1988|CARLA RIVERA | Times Staff Writer

Seven people remained hospitalized Sunday with injuries ranging from a broken leg to fractured ribs suffered when a dragster slammed into a wall and sent wreckage hurtling into the stands at Anaheim Stadium during a motor sporting event Saturday night.

A "freak accident" was how event officials termed the 9:15 p.m. incident, which injured 19 people, including the dragster driver and a stadium employee.

Safety Precautions Questioned

But several witnesses said Sunday that the stadium track lacked sufficient barriers to protect the crowd, and some questioned whether proper safety precautions were taken.

The cause of the accident remained under investigation Sunday, amid initial indications of possible mechanical trouble, city officials said.

The crash occurred during a demonstration run of a high-powered, top-fuel dragster that was not a part of Saturday's Motorsports Doubleheader Extravaganza. The main event, featuring trucks and tractors pulling 7,000-pound weights, packed a 40,000-plus crowd into the stadium, city officials said.

During half time, the dragster was to make a 20-foot run at low speed and "spin its wheels" to promote an upcoming event at the stadium, Anaheim public information officer Sheri Erlewine said.

The vehicle ran down a drag strip at an estimated 35 m.p.h. but was unable to stop, Erlewine said. The dragster first crashed into a piece of heavy equipment parked near the stands. The force of the impact sheared off the dragster's rear end assembly--the axle and giant rear wheels--and sent it crashing into a five-foot-high retaining wall and then into the stands.

Six Treated at Scene

Six of the injured spectators were treated by paramedics at the scene. Twelve others were taken to several area hospitals, where seven remained hospitalized Sunday, including stadium equipment operator Casey Gill, who had been standing on the field.

Erlewine said preliminary indications are that the driver of the dragster "had a problem braking and slowing the car," although authorities have not yet determined if mechanical problems played a role, she said.

"Right now, it's still under investigation. The vehicle has been impounded and we're looking at it as we would any other auto accident," Erlewine said. "Until we know what caused the accident, it would be impossible to determine what (added precautions) should or shouldn't have been taken.

"It appears that the setup (used Saturday night) was standard procedure for this type of exhibition," she said.

But several spectators who witnessed the crash, including one who gave first aid to the injured, criticized the safety precautions taken during the event.

Paul Gedigian, a retired captain with the Pasadena Fire Department, said he believes that the event's sponsors should have cleared the first 20 rows of spectators before allowing the dragster to begin its run.

"That fence would never stop a several-thousand-pound vehicle, and there were no other barriers out there," Gedigian said. "People who go to see something like this have no idea of the jeopardy they are in if something goes wrong."

Broken Seats Called Hazard

Gedigian, who said he was seated about 20 feet from where the wreckage landed, said he helped at least a half-dozen people who were crushed in their seats. He said the wreckage had broken seats, exposing sharp, jagged metal pieces, which also caused several injuries. And several of the injured suffered cuts from flying debris, he said.

"One woman I helped put on a stretcher had her leg crushed. She had been struck by debris, and her arm and face were a horrible mess," Gedigian said. "People were screaming and hollering. It was the first time I'd ever been to an event like this, and I was really scared."

Another spectator, Brad Johnson of Buena Park, said: "Safety factors were all negatives last night. There was nothing, aside from the wall, to protect the crowd. The precautions there stunk."

But promoter Mickey Thompson, who sponsored the half-time event and will present a similar show next weekend at the stadium, said the accident was something that could not have been anticipated.

Thompson said such low-speed demonstrations have been held hundreds of times around the country and have never required extra precautions.

First Occurrence

"I've promoted 5,000 events over 40 years and nothing like this has ever happened before," he said. "We have never had anyone injured during one of our events before. This is absolutely a freak accident."

However, Thompson said that because of the accident, he will no longer hold similar demonstrations.

Thompson said the upcoming stadium events, including an off-road racing event Saturday and a "thunder drag" event Sunday, will include "standard safety precautions."

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