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Disney Admits Errors on Ride

It acknowledges faulty work on the roller coaster that killed a man but denies a broader problem. The state's report is due soon.

November 26, 2003|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

As the state prepares to release its report on the cause of September's fatal crash on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the attorney for the victim's family said his experts have determined that faulty maintenance is to blame and questioned whether it's part of a larger safety problem at the Anaheim amusement park.

Disneyland officials acknowledged late Tuesday that required tasks on the ride were not completed, but they issued strong statements denying broader maintenance flaws.

"Our own analysis found that the accident was caused by incorrectly performed maintenance tasks required by Disneyland policy and procedures that resulted in a mechanical failure," said Leslie Goodman, senior vice president of strategic communications for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

"At no time have we ever done anything which we believe would compromise the level of safety required for the safe operation of our attractions."

Disneyland did not specify what safeguards are in place to ensure that workers follow maintenance procedures and if those safeguards also failed. Park officials declined to comment further until the report from the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health is released.

State officials have said "mechanical failure" is likely the cause of the accident.

The crash occurred Sept. 5 when a wheel assembly on the roller coaster fell off, causing the locomotive to separate from the passenger cars, in turn causing a partial derailment. Marcelo Torres, 22, of Gardena died at the scene; 10 others were injured.

After the crash, employees told police that they noticed an unusual clanking sound at least 30 minutes before the accident and were getting ready to take the ride out of service.

Other sources have said that maintenance workers had been called to look at the ride days before the accident because of similar problems.

In the wake of the crash on the roller coaster, which simulates a runaway mine train, many former employees complained that Disneyland has serious maintenance problems stemming from budget cuts and a department reorganization in the late 1990s. That contention is echoed by Santa Ana attorney Wylie Aitken, who is representing Torres' family.

Aitken said his experts believe that bolts holding an "upstop" wheel -- a wheel that travels below the track and helps keep the train from jumping out -- were not tightened. In addition, a safety mechanism that would have kept the bolts in place was also not used, he said.

"We're pretty comfortable that when that train left the station, that upstop had already fallen off," he said. "That vehicle was already on a mission to fail."

The problem, he said, is similar to Disneyland's last ride-related fatality, in 1998, when an iron cleat broke off the Columbia sailing ship and struck a Washington state man.

"To me, it's a systemic problem with the corporate culture that is now running Disneyland," said Aitken, who also represented the wife of the victim of the Columbia accident.

"Our long-standing commitment to safety remains the same," Goodman said. "Anyone who suggests otherwise is simply wrong.... We believe that our maintenance system incorporates the best modern management practices and safety procedures. We constantly evaluate and explore new ways to improve our operations."

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