In the wake of two recent accidents at California theme parks, including one in which a board flew from a Knott's Berry Farm ride Monday and struck five people in the head, a state Senate committee voted to require statewide inspections of all amusement park rides.
Though the committee members did not discuss Sunday's tragedy--a 12-year-old boy fell to his death at a Bay Area amusement park--Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) said the incident added momentum to support for the bill.
"In memory of these individuals and young people who have been killed, we need to try to get this legislation in place," said Torlakson, the bill's sponsor.
The bill now goes before the full Senate, where it is expected to be approved then sent back to the Assembly for fine-tuning. The Assembly already passed the measure but must approve Senate changes before the bill goes to Gov. Gray Davis.
Davis has not indicated a position on the bill.
The Senate committee vote came hours after part of a 5-foot-long, 2-by-2-inch piece of wood broke from the GhostRider attraction at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, flipped into the air and struck five people riding in two of the roller coaster's cars.
GhostRider, billed as the West's biggest roller coaster, opened last December as part of a strategy to boost Knott's appeal by adding new thrill rides.
One of the injured, Shino Shoji, 59, a tourist from Gumma, Japan, was taken to UC Irvine Medical Center, where he received stitches to close a cut on his head. Four youths were treated for minor scratches on their faces, said Buena Park Police Sgt. Terry Branum.
Two representatives from Custom Coaster Inc., the Cincinnati company that built the ride, left Monday for Buena Park, a company employee said.
"They're going out there to inspect the coaster and see what happened," the employee said.
Jack Falfas, general manager of the theme park, said the ride will be examined by two other experts: Gary Gast, a specialist in wooden roller coasters from Knott's parent company, Ohio-based Cedar Fair LP, and Richard Brown, a dynamics expert who has done extensive work for amusement parks.
Knott's officials say the entire length of the roller coaster track is inspected each day before the GhostRider begins operations, and bolts are tightened and wood pieces replaced at any sign of weakness.
Since the ride opened amid much fanfare last December, no serious accidents had occurred until Monday, said park spokesman Bob Ochsner.
The roller coaster incident followed Sunday's fatality at the Drop Zone Stunt Tower in Paramount's Great America Theme Park in Santa Clara.
Twelve-year-old Joshua Smurphat of Sunnyvale, described as severely disabled, apparently slipped out of a safety harness and plunged to his death.
"There is no excuse for someone to die with a safety harness on," said Kathy Dresslar, a consumer lobbyist for Children's Advocacy Institute.
The Drop Zone, which opened in 1996, drops riders in a free fall of 129 feet that reaches 62 mph. Sunday's accident was the first such incident on the ride.
Knott's has a ride similar to the Drop Zone, called Supreme Scream, but has no plans to shut it down, Falfas said. The ride is made by a different manufacturer but uses a similar type of restraint system for riders.
Falfas said he walked into the park Monday morning--before the accident on the GhostRider roller coaster--to look at the Supreme Scream and try to envision what had happened in Santa Clara.
"Every time you hear of anything like this, you're more acutely aware and you look at yourself," Falfas said.
Supreme Scream at Knott's was built by S&S Power Sports in Logan, Utah. The Santa Clara ride was made by Intamin AG, a Swiss company.
There are some mechanical differences. At Knott's, Supreme Scream is braked by air; the Drop Zone is braked by magnets.
The two rides have similar restraint systems, with shoulder harnesses and straps between the legs.
"I don't think it had anything to do with the ride," Falfas said of the Santa Clara accident. "I don't know how the kid got out of it."
Sunday's fatal accident did little to sway opponents of state amusement park regulation.
"I think the major players in the park industry have incredibly good safety records as a whole," said Assemblyman Kenneth Maddox (R-Garden Grove), who opposed the measure.
"I'm unwilling to support any legislation that doesn't have a strong rider responsibility clause."
Maddox said many accidents are caused "by people who had too much to drink acting like fools."
Safety of amusement park rides emerged as a political issue after a fatal Christmas Eve accident at Disneyland. A metal mooring cleat tore loose from the Columbia sailing ship ride, killing a tourist from Washington state and severely injuring two others.
Disneyland was fined $12,500 by state safety regulators, who ruled that managers of the park had inadequately trained a worker on the ride and had misused equipment.
The accident prompted legislative action, including Torlakson's bill, to set safety standards and require state inspections of rides and public reports on accidents.
The details of those inspections have been the subject of numerous amendments, including some backed by the amusement park industry that would have limited regulation to self-inspections.
The current bill has drawn some opposition--including that of Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), the Senate Appropriations Committee's vice chairman--over its requirement that the parks pay for the inspections.
"I don't really think the bill is at the top of anyone's agenda," he said. "That's not to say it's not important, but it's one of thousands of bills moving through the Legislature."
Leslie voted against the bill early Monday but later changed his vote.
Times staff writer Scott Martelle and correspondent Jason Kandel contributed to this report.