Officials at the Orange County Fair ordered a popular thrill ride closed Sunday while they investigated whether a system of safety nets failed to completely break the fall of a La Canada-Flintridge woman who dropped from a 13-story tower in the Adrenaline Drop.
As her husband and two children watched, 30-year-old Aidyl Sofia-Gonzalez plunged from the 130-foot-high platform toward a system of two nets, designed to prevent jumpers from touching the ground, which fair officials say is covered with 5-inch foam padding. Some witnesses said the woman hit the ground with a thud and lay motionless as her husband leaped over a small fence and ran to her.
"Witnesses said she hit the net and went straight through to the ground," Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. George Carruthers said. "If she hit as hard as they said, that's scary."
Riders on the Adrenaline Drop are lifted in a metal cage with bungee cords strapped around their waists. They lie on the floor of the cage and are dropped through a trapdoor.
A fair safety consultant and an owner of the ride said the woman did not touch the ground but landed harder than normal within the nets. The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health will investigate the incident and review a videotape made of the woman's fall. The attraction will remain closed indefinitely.
Sheriff's deputies said Sofia-Gonzalez suffered no broken bones or visible injuries but was removed with a backboard and neck brace. She was admitted to Western Medical Center-Santa Ana for observation overnight.
Barry Schaible, the fair's ride safety consultant, said the woman escaped injury. "She was moving and laughing a bit," he said. "She was saying, 'I have two children. I know pain, and this isn't it.' "
Schaible said that according to the ride employees and witnesses he talked to, Sofia-Gonzalez hit the first net, a blue canvas-like sheet with inflated padding on all four sides, which "knocked the wind out of her." A second net of mesh, directly below the first one, caught her, he said.
"She hit the first net harder than usual, but she never hit the ground," Schaible said. "None of the nets failed. Everything did what it was supposed to do."
Some witnesses said the first net, which is hoisted into place by cranes after each jump, usually is raised about 40 feet high but appeared to be half that height.
"The net wasn't raised. It was half of what it should be," said Joe Krebs, who was working at a commercial sales booth 10 yards away and watching many of the jumps, including Sofia-Gonzalez's.
"It was a chaotic scene. The rock music was blaring from four speakers, and the guy on the ground couldn't communicate to the guy upstairs," Krebs said. "They had no walkie-talkies. There's too much yelling and screaming."
Norma Rodriguez, 41, of La Mirada said she had been sitting on a bench watching people free-fall for 40 minutes. "Right away I knew something wasn't quite right," Rodriguez said. "The net was quite a bit lower than it had been. I thought maybe this woman wanted to be a daredevil. Usually when they hit, they bounce. But she slowly went down after hitting the net, and then she hit right on her back. You could hear a thud when she hit."
Rick Martinez, who was working in a Cal Spas booth by the Adrenaline Drop, said he was with a customer when he noticed the net looked "crooked."
"I didn't even know anybody was ready to jump," Martinez said. "Then I saw her hit the ground. It got dead quiet. I walked over there and she wasn't moving. I did that ride last year, but now I'll never do it again."
Another booth employee said he was surprised to hear that fair and ride officials were saying the woman never hit the ground.
"That's not what the videotape will show," said Reuven Sherr. "She hit the net, then she hit the ground and bounced off the ground again. You heard a groan from the crowd and then an 'ahhh.' "
The Adrenaline Drop is owned by Amusement Management International, of Carrollton, Texas, and is one of the fair's most popular attractions. A ride costs $35, and thrill seekers can have a video made of their jumps by paying another $15. This is its second year in Orange County.
The ride was inspected during its setup and tested before the fair opened at 10 a.m. Friday, according to Schaible, a consultant for Ohio-based R.J. Coulter & Associates.
Schaible and another consultant got to the fairgrounds a week early to check the thousands of pins, bolts and other ride parts. The Adrenaline Drop had all new cables, he said, and survived the opening-day test: dropping a barrel filled with 55 gallons of water, more than the weight of the heaviest rider.
Schaible said testing isn't required, but "we test it because it makes us feel good."
Becky Bailey-Findley, chief executive of the Orange County Fair, said the matter would be fully investigated. "You never want to have a patron hurt.
"Bad things happen. We try to do everything we can to prevent it."
Philip Gonzalez, Sofia-Gonzalez's brother, said his sister, born and raised in Bronx, N.Y., studied to be a microbiologist and is currently a homemaker. Philip Gonzalez, who lives in Massachusetts, said he was stunned to hear that his sister had chosen to board a thrill ride.
"She's real quiet, real conservative girl. I'll rip into her when I get to talk to her," he said.
Times staff writers Jennifer Mena and Monte Morin contributed to this report.