A brain aneurysm caused the death of a young woman who collapsed after a roller-coaster ride at Knott's Berry Farm, the third such incident at California theme parks this summer, authorities said Tuesday.
Gafudji Mekanisi, 25, a former Knott's employee who family members said was an aspiring model, singer and thrill-ride aficionado, was on the Montezooma's Revenge roller coaster with a family member about 7 p.m. Friday when she reportedly slumped over the safety bar. She died about 4 a.m. Saturday at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana.
"It was definitely a brain aneurysm," Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, said after a preliminary autopsy Tuesday. "But further tests need to be done to determine exactly what caused it to erupt at that time."
The popular Montezooma's Revenge, which accelerates from zero to 60 mph in three seconds, remained closed Tuesday pending the results of investigations by the Orange County coroner's office and the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Friday's incident was similar in some respects to two recent deaths at amusement parks. In June, a 28-year-old Fontana woman died after riding the Goliath roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.
An autopsy revealed that she suffered from hypertension-related heart disease and died from a ruptured brain aneurysm. A 42-year-old woman died in July after riding a spinning attraction at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, apparently from bleeding in the brain.
A national research firm, the Brain Injury Assn., is planning to study the possibility of links between brain injuries and thrill rides by examining 30 to 50 cases in which amusement-park patrons reportedly suffered brain injuries while riding roller coasters or similar attractions.
Susan Tierney, a spokeswoman for Knott's, said Tuesday that Mekanisi had worked at Knott's briefly in 1999 but left because of a scheduling conflict.
"There are unconfirmed reports that she had ridden that ride before," Tierney said.
"Our thoughts and prayers certainly go out to her family. It's a very, very sad occurrence, and we are very sorry that it happened," Tierney said. "We take it personally. At Knott's, safety is our No. 1 priority. All indications are that this was a medical condition."
A lawyer representing Mekanisi's family described the young woman, a native of Zaire, as vivacious and healthy.
"She had never been diagnosed with any condition whatsoever relating to a brain aneurysm or anything of the sort," Aime Katambwe said.
"She loved amusement parks and had been on many roller coasters before. It was kind of a hobby for her. It never occurred to anyone that she could lose her life on one."
Funeral arrangements for Gafudji Mekanisi are pending, Katambwe said, the arrival of a brother from Paris, where Mekanisi lived before coming to the United States about two years ago.
He said the young woman, who lived in Corona, was a student, a model and singer who had just made a CD in Paris, where it sold well.
"She was on her way. On Saturday she was supposed to be at a modeling job on Wilshire Boulevard. She was really living a full life," he said.