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Water Slide Accident Stuns Napa Campus

Tragedy: Students gather at school to mourn classmate killed in theme park incident and to pray for the 32 injured.

June 04, 1997|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAPA, Calif. — Students at the high school here wept Tuesday. They hugged and they walked around as if in a daze, trying to make sense of what happened Monday when one classmate died and 32 others were injured after a water slide broke during what was supposed to be a day of fun at an amusement park.

At noon, dozens of students spontaneously gathered around Napa High School's flagpole, where flags lowered to half-mast drooped beneath a darkened sky. They joined hands there and prayed for the injured and for 17-year-old Quimby Ghilotti, the senior who was fatally injured when the serpentine Banzai slide at Waterworld USA broke, flinging the teenagers more than 30 feet to the concrete.

"The students just really wanted to be here today," said Frank Humpert, a former Napa High School principal who returned to campus Tuesday morning to help them deal with the tragedy.

Speaking at a morning news conference, student body President Chris Snowden said he doubted "anyone's doing very well. . . . No one can function."

Snowden and four others who had gone on the senior class trip to the amusement park in Concord joined Principal Lars Christiansen to talk about what happened and how they were coping with it.

Choking back tears, Barry Franks recounted how he was almost at the bottom of the slide when it snapped. He ran to the end and saw "just a lot of people spread out, all mostly injured . . . it was pretty bad."

Christiansen said Franks was heroic in helping his injured classmates--praise that Franks brushed aside.

"I just did what I did," Franks said. "Everything was going so fast. . . . I was trying to help as many people as possible. People wanted to fall asleep. You can't do that. People were seriously injured and . . . your primary goal is to find the worst hurt and take care of them."

Hilary Zunin, an English teacher and crisis coordinator, told reporters that the campus was simply "overloaded with grief."

Even so, officials said, June 12 graduation ceremonies for the school's 400 seniors will be held as scheduled.

About half the senior class went on the trip to the water park, supervised by eight teachers. The outing is an annual affair, a last chance for seniors to get together and have fun before leaving school. This was the first year it was held at Waterworld.

Shortly before the park closed for the day, at least 30 students apparently ignored a lifeguard's warnings and pushed onto the slide for one final ride before boarding buses for the 90-minute trip back to school, park officials said. Normally, only one rider at a time is allowed to swoosh down the rushing water in the twisting fiberglass slide.

"There doesn't appear to have been any problem with the ride itself, with its operation or the procedures," Kieran Burke, chief executive officer of Premier Parks, said Tuesday from New York. Waterworld is owned by Premier Parks.

On Tuesday, at least one 17-year-old girl remained in critical condition with a spinal injury at Mt. Diablo Medical Center in Concord. Seventeen others remained in hospitals as well, with injuries ranging from a broken pelvis to a punctured lung. None of the injuries were thought to be life-threatening.

Meanwhile, Premier Parks announced that Waterworld will remain closed until park and city officials complete an investigation of the accident.

The city of Concord said it has hired an independent investigator to conduct what a spokesman termed a "technical codes investigation" at the amusement park. Concord police were also investigating.

Burke said Premier has maintained an "excellent safety record" at its 11 amusement parks nationwide. The company also manages Marineworld USA in nearby Vallejo.

Premier bought Waterworld less than a year ago when the park was 2 years old, he said, adding that it is one of the company's most financially successful parks.

In Southern California, representatives of Six Flags Hurricane Harbor, just west of the Golden State Freeway in the Santa Clarita Valley, and Raging Waters near San Dimas said they have precautions in place to avoid such accidents, including preventing more than one rider at a time reaching the slides.

At Hurricane Harbor, the only people allowed at the takeoff point are the rider and two lifeguards who control each slide, said spokeswoman Bonnie Rabjohn. Other riders are kept back by turnstiles, stairs and railings. There have been no significant injuries there since the park opened three years ago, she said.

If lifeguards are faced with a dangerous situation, they can push a button that shuts off the water used to propel the riders down the slide, she said.

Kent Lemasters, vice president and general manager of Raging Waters, said the park uses many of the same safety precautions that Hurricane Harbor uses. "We believe that through our ride design, engineering and safety procedures, Raging Waters has taken every precaution to prevent this type of incident from occurring here," Lemasters said.

At Waterworld, Burke said rides are regularly inspected by the company's engineers and that Whitewater West, the manufacturer of the slide, has an excellent safety record. Engineers from Premier and Whitewater are participating in the investigation, he said.

"We want to be sure that we understand every aspect of what happened," Burke said. "But we don't feel that this is the right time to be assessing blame. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the injured, and with our employees."

Grief counseling also is being made available to employees who saw the slide collapse, Burke said.

Times staff writer Greg Sandoval in Los Angeles and Associated Press contributed to this story.

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