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California and the West

Support Grows for Inspections of Amusement Park Attractions

Safety: Mother of boy injured on Disneyland ride lobbies legislators to vote on bill requiring oversight, mandatory reporting of accidents.

April 20, 1999|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Kathy Fackler walked the halls of the state Capitol last week, giving legislators a human face to put on the debate over amusement park safety.

It's the face of her son, David, whose foot was nearly ripped in two on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland last year.

The La Jolla mother of two is pleading with legislators to vote for a bill that would require state inspections of amusement park rides and mandatory reporting of accidents.

Behind the scenes and in the legislative hearing rooms in Sacramento, momentum is growing to create a law that would regulate the state's 71 amusement parks.

For about 30 years, the industry has been able to defeat attempts to impose state rules over the maintenance and safety of permanent rides and the reporting of accidents. That has left California as one of just 10 states that does not oversee permanent amusement parks.

Now, a state Senate bill requiring two inspections a year, raising fines and giving the state authority to shut down an unsafe ride has unanimously passed its first committee test.

An Assembly bill requiring one state inspection a year and reporting of accidents goes to its first committee hearing in May. By then, the bill's sponsor hopes to have gained the backing of the state's key theme parks, including Disneyland.

Such support would be a major shift in position for the parks and a key factor in getting legislation passed.

"My sense is the momentum is there due to the much greater public scrutiny of the industry," said Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), sponsor of the Assembly bill.

Torlakson also has picked up support from Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), whose district includes Disneyland. Correa has signed on as a co-sponsor of the measure.

It would be difficult to vote against legislation because the idea behind state regulation is so reasonable, said state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), sponsor of the tougher Senate bill.

Or as Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said to Kathy Fackler when she stopped by his office last week: "There should be nothing to fear from disclosure."

Increased public scrutiny followed the Christmas Eve accident at Disneyland that killed a Washington man and seriously injured his wife and a park worker. That sparked what Fackler said was the difficult decision to go public with her family's ordeal.

Fackler said she was infuriated to read a news report that called the incident the first serious accident at Disneyland in four years. She knew that was not true, she said. Her son's accident had occurred 10 months earlier.

Since then, David, who was 5 when he was injured, has suffered through numerous operations, and all the toes and part of his foot were eventually amputated, she said.

"Disneyland is very sorry about what happened to David, but their focus on image leads them to play down real safety concerns," Fackler said.

The park made alterations to the ride. Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez would not comment directly on the case but said the accident "speaks to why we have rules" at the park. He said that keeping body parts inside rides is "the first rule of common sense."

Fackler said she was on the Big Thunder Mountain ride, one arm around each of her sons, when the accident occurred.

Mistaking a momentary pause for the end of the ride and eager to jump out, David flung one foot out of the open side of the car. When the car started moving again, David's foot got pinned between a board and the platform and was dragged with enough force to tear it apart, she said.

"The [safety] bar kept his body in the car, thank God," Fackler said.

It took 20 minutes and the help of two other park visitors, a paramedic and a firefighter to free David's foot, she said, and an additional 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

Fackler said her family was fortunate to have the insurance and cash to pay for David's monthlong hospital stay and surgeries.

But Fackler did want something from Disney--to get the ride fixed so no other child could be hurt.

"I don't necessarily fault them for what happened the last time, but I do if it happens again."

Fackler also wanted to thank the people who helped her, including other guests and park employees, but Disneyland officials blocked that idea, she said, and wouldn't respond to the couple's concerns.

She said, for example, she was astounded that the park modified the ride without interviewing her family.

"I understand their need for self-protection, but they owe the truth about what goes on there," she said.

The Facklers decided not to file a lawsuit. But they were frustrated with what they saw as Disneyland's failure to respond to their questions about the ride.

So they filed an accident claim with the park more as a way to get a response, she said, than to get reimbursed. The claim was settled in January. A provision in the deal prevents her from discussing the terms, but she would not agree to remain silent about the issue.

"I'd like to have something good come out of it after all we've been through," she said.

Disneyland did not, as Fackler suggested, build up the sides of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad cars to ensure that passengers wouldn't stick their feet out. But the park did make changes to the platform area, she said, and added a warning about keeping feet in the car to a safety sign, which David was too young to read.

She knows about the changes firsthand. At David's request, the Fackler family returned to Disneyland, met with employees and rode the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad again.

David can walk and run again, but the thigh skin that was grafted to his foot is prone to infection, she said.

Gomez sympathized with how frightening and terrible it was for the Facklers to have their child injured, but said: "Disneyland is a safe place. You really have to try hard to hurt yourself on the attractions."

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