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Teenager Killed, 32 Hurt as Park Water Slide Breaks

Accident: Students on class outing in Concord had crowded onto ride. Some fell 75 feet, official says.

June 03, 1997|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — A high school student was killed and 32 other teenagers were injured Monday--as many as 16 of them seriously--when a group of students on an amusement park outing allegedly ignored a lifeguard's warning and crowded onto a water slide, which snapped and sent them crashing to the ground, emergency officials said.

Waterworld USA General Manager Steve Mayer told reporters who quickly converged on the amusement park in the East Bay community of Concord that a group of at least 25 teenagers may have caused the slide to collapse by gathering in one spot. The teenagers, seniors from Napa High School, had made the 90-minute trip to the park to celebrate graduating.

"Our guard couldn't control it," Mayer said. Normally, he added, one rider at a time goes down the four-story-high slide, one of four Banzai Tower slides at the park.

"It just cracked and gave way," said witness Russ Tiberio of San Francisco. "Crack, snap, gone. That fast."

Rick McCurley, vice president of Premier Parks, which owns Waterworld, said the injured, many of whom were reportedly holding hands on the slide, fell about 30 feet.

But Patricia Pava, emergency planning specialist for Contra Costa County's Office of Emergency Services, said the youngsters plunged as far as 75 feet to the ground.

The identity of the dead student, a 17-year-old girl, had not been released late Monday. Hospital officials said she suffered massive head and chest injuries.

Eyewitnesses described a horrific scene, recounting how the riders screamed as the slide broke with a loud cracking noise about eight feet from its highest point.

Water gushing down the slide quickly turned from blue to red.

Some of the teenagers, flung from the slide into landscaped areas, were able to get up and brush themselves off, witnesses said. But many others lay still, apparently badly injured.

Witnesses said the teenagers may have ignored the lifeguard's order to go one at a time because they wanted to hold hands as they made the trip down the slide.

McCurley said there was an announcement over the park loudspeaker at 3:30 p.m. for the Napa students to return to their buses for the trip home.

"This incident apparently caused the students to rush our lifeguard on the Banzai Pipeline slide in an attempt to get one last ride in for the afternoon," he said. "The total weight of the 30-odd students on the slide caused the slide to break and the students to fall."

The park opened for the summer just over a week ago and the accident occurred just minutes before its scheduled closing time of 4 p.m.

Ambulances and medical helicopters converged on the scene, and the injured were rushed to nine hospitals, Pava said. The park, she said, had no history of problems with the slide. Almost immediately after the accident, local television and radio stations began broadcasting telephone numbers for parents to call and inquiries from frantic parents began flooding the switchboards of the Concord Police Department, hospitals and the park itself.

One mother, waiting at Napa High School for her son to arrive there about 6 p.m., told reporters that her son had called her to say he was all right. The accident, she said, was "traumatic for all the kids. . . . They were all shook up."

Students wept as they disembarked from their buses after the return trip to school. One described what happened at the park as "a textbook nightmare."

School administrators said they had summoned counselors and chaplains to the campus to deal with parents and students.

Three buses had taken the students and eight adult chaperons to Waterworld Monday morning, said administrator Noreen Hanna.

The senior class has selected the park for its senior picnic, Hanna said, and about 145 members of the 400-student graduating class made the trip.

Hanna said parents began congregating on campus within minutes of the accident.

Parents and staff alike, she said, were in a state of "shock and disbelief, because this happened so close to graduation, which is June 12."

Hanna said school officials were trying to help parents locate where their children were taken.

"I just found out that my daughter has a hip injury and is in Martinez Hospital," one parent told reporters. ". . . I'm very relieved."

Mt. Diablo Hospital in Concord said the 17-year-old girl who died had arrived in "very critical" condition and that another 17-year-old girl was in critical condition with a spinal injury. Most of the injuries ranged from broken bones to cuts and scrapes.

Kirsten Adams, spokeswoman for John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, said the hospital was flooded with phone calls. Adams said five teenagers, all believed to be students from Napa High School, were brought to the hospital. Three were reported in serious condition and two in good condition.

Waterworld, a 21-acre site owned by Premier Parks, a national theme park chain, opened in 1995. More than 300,000 people visited the park that year.

It features acres of twisting water slides and the Big Kahuna, a water-powered roller coaster, and rides catering to young children.

Times staff writers Maura Dolan and Maria L. La Ganga, researcher Norma Kaufman and Times wire services contributed to this report.

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