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Officials Ask if Weight Had Role in Fatal Fall From Ride at Knott's

Safety: Investigators visit park to try to determine why restraints didn't keep woman in her seat.

September 25, 2001|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Investigators are looking into whether weight played a role in the fatal fall of a woman from a steep water ride at Knott's Berry Farm.

Lori Mason-Larez, 40, of Duarte fell Friday from the Perilous Plunge ride as it dropped 121 feet at up to 50 mph. Somehow, the mother of five slipped from a double-restraint system--a seat belt and lap bar that appeared to have been secured--and fell to the water below.

"The big mystery is really how she got out of the restraint," said Susan Gard, spokeswoman for the Department of Occupational Safety and Health, the state agency investigating the accident.

"Might she have gone unconscious for some reason and then her lap bar and seat belt were still in place but her weight had shifted in some way? . . . Weight may have been one of the factors, but there may have been others."

Park spokeswoman Susan Tierney described the woman as "large." Other sources said she was very heavy.

Ed Pribonic, a ride engineer and licensed inspector, said lap bars and seat belts can often become safety issues for both very small and very large people. Although Pribonic has not ridden Perilous Plunge and did not have enough information to draw a conclusion, he offered two scenarios that might cause restraint systems to fail.

"If [the rider is] very large or very round-shaped, the bar can't really come down and get to its most efficient position," Pribonic said. "It can't lock over the knees. People with [extra] weight are somewhat fluid and their body reshapes. If they were thrown out of position, the mass of tissue that was below the lap bar at one time . . . can offset the center of gravity or balance and allow the person to come loose."

With regard to the seat belt, Pribonic said the woman's girth might have led her to adjust the seat belt below her stomach instead of around it--which would mean that it might have held her legs down, but not the bulk of her body.

There are no weight restrictions on Perilous Plunge, which remains closed, but park officials said it was an issue they would study and consider if investigators determine that the woman's size played a role in the accident.

Park officials said ride operators were confident that both the lap bar and seat belt were locked in place. And when the ride returned to the loading area, after Mason-Larez had fallen out, they were still in locked position, they said.

The woman's family declined to comment on Monday, but a relative said they will make a statement soon.

State investigators were at Knott's on Monday and planned to meet with representatives from Intamin AG, the ride's manufacturer. Investigators were also trying to interview witnesses, including the woman's relatives who were passengers on the boat ride with her when she fell.

The same company also designed "Superman: Ride of Steel." In May 1999, a 27-year-old man suffered minor injuries after being ejected from the ride at Six Flags Darien Lake in New York. The man weighed more than 300 pounds, and state inspectors later determined that the park should restrict the size of passengers allowed on the ride and install seat belts as a redundant passenger restraint device. The ride had been equipped with a lap bar. Many Knott's rides are designed with double restraints.

This is the second fatal incident at Knott's Berry Farm in less than a month. A 20-year-old woman suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm on the Montezooma's Revenge roller coaster on Aug. 31.

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