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Orange County

After the Crash, Questions

A friend of the rider who died says they were always joking, even as they boarded. State investigators expect to take weeks.

September 07, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Vicente Gutierrez remembered going through a dark tunnel and taking the third turn on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad thrill ride Friday, his best friend seated next to him in the front car.

"All of a sudden I heard something really loud and shaky," Gutierrez said Saturday. "I told myself, 'This isn't normal.' "

Then he blacked out. The train cars crashed in the tunnel, killing Gutierrez's friend, Marcelo Torres, 22, and injuring 10 others in one of the worst accidents in the Anaheim theme park's history.

Investigators measured, probed and inspected the wreckage Saturday, suspecting a mechanical failure. Some Disney employees raised questions about the park's maintenance procedures. And Gutierrez, a gauze plug stuck into one nostril of his injured nose, his face bruised and cut, recounted the crash from his bed at the UCI Medical Center in Orange.

"I really thought it was a dream," he said. "I had four flashes, like I was in and out. I fainted, then woke up and fainted again. I saw Marcelo unconscious, then my two other friends. It was a blur."

The next clear memory Gutierrez has, he said, is waking up in an ambulance and asking for his friends. He asked about them again at the hospital, and that's when a detective told him that Torres was dead.

"I thought he was fine," said Gutierrez, 22. "I was so devastated."

In Gardena, where Torres lived with his father, shocked family members gathered to mourn.

"He was a good kid; very obedient, very straight," Ben Sanie, Torres' uncle, said of the young man who was born in Torrance and attended high school in Arizona. "He was a role model for other kids," Sanie said, "never drank, smoked or did anything like that. It's so hard for us to describe."

Torres -- whose cause of death has not been made public by the Orange County coroner -- was the 10th person to die in an attraction-related accident since Disneyland opened in 1955, park historians said. Fatal accidents have occurred on the Columbia sailing ship, the Matterhorn, the People Mover, Rivers of America, the Monorail and the America Sings rotating stage.

In 1999, Kathy Fackler -- whose young son, David, had his foot mangled in a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad accident -- worked for the passage of a law to require inspections of permanent amusement park rides and the mandatory reporting of serious injury accidents.

Since then, amusement park accidents have been investigated by the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH).

"There's a lot of wreckage," Len Welsh, that agency's acting director, said Saturday regarding the latest accident. "We anticipate that it will take several weeks to get a handle on what happened."

What is known, he said, is that the train's locomotive came uncoupled from the front passenger car. "I'm assuming it was some kind of mechanical failure," Welsh said. After determining what actually happened, he said, investigators will take a look at the ride's design, as well as operating and maintenance procedures.

Maintenance has been a concern in recent years to Disneyland watchers and some former employees. For 40 years, said Dave Koenig, a Disneyland watchdog and author of "Mouse Tales," the park had a rigorous preventive maintenance schedule for every attraction based on replacing each part before it wore out. In the late 1990s, however, the park cut back on maintenance even while attractions were being added.

Disneyland spokesman Bob Tucker said he was unable to immediately comment on reports of maintenance cutbacks. "What I can tell you generally is that the safety of our guests is our highest priority," he said.

In a 2002 booklet titled "Report on Safety," park officials detail elaborate maintenance procedures carried out every night by engineers and technicians who inspect rides, repair problems and "renew" worn parts. Work is directed in part by computer-generated lists of scheduled tasks for each ride.

"Rides are not authorized for operation the next day until scheduled preventative and corrective maintenance procedures have been performed," says the document on the Disney Web site.

After maintenance crews are finished each morning, ride operators follow lengthy checklists to determine that the attractions are ready for guests, the report says. Annual inspections and audits supplement these efforts.

There is no evidence that maintenance played a part in Friday's accident. Nevertheless, current and former park employees were buzzing Saturday over the perception that Disneyland has shortchanged maintenance.

Bob Klostriech, 61, who worked in maintenance at Disneyland for 23 years and supervised the crew at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, said he tried on several occasions to warn park officials that reducing maintenance would lead to a tragedy.

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