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Even Fans of Ride Starting to Have Doubts

A third accident within a year at Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has some suggesting it be shut down permanently.

July 10, 2004|Kimi Yoshino and Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Some roller-coaster fans called it a fluke when a car on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad derailed in September, causing an accident that killed one man.

They were willing to forgive a second crash in April -- just three weeks after the ride re-opened following extensive investigations -- because no one was hurt. The cars were empty as employees put the trains through a dry run.

But after one Thunder Mountain train bumped into another Thursday, slightly injuring three people and shutting down the ride again, even the most ardent Disney fans are frustrated.

One enthusiast's website actually asked the unthinkable: "Should Big Thunder Mountain remain permanently closed?"

Thursday's minor collision occurred as a train returned to the loading station. Disneyland officials characterized it as a "bump" when two trains "made contact" with each other. A 10-year-old and his parents, complaining of minor neck and back injuries, were treated and released from Western Medical Center-Anaheim.

State inspectors investigated the accident Friday, and the ride remained closed. Employees posted at the ride's entrance told curious park patrons that "two cars bumped" and said they did not know when the ride would re-open. Disneyland and state officials said they would not comment until the investigation is completed.

"People are saying this ride is cursed; it's doomed. Tear it down. I've seen that across four different [Internet message] boards," said Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, a columnist for mouseplanet.com, a consumer-oriented Disney watchdog website.

"I'm seeing people be almost speechless on this one. It's like, 'What is it going to take for them to fix this ride, because obviously a fatality wasn't enough?' "

After Marcelo Torres of Gardena died and 10 other people were injured in the September accident, a state Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation faulted ride mechanics who didn't tighten bolts and attach a safety wire to a wheel assembly. The assembly fell off, leading to a partial derailment in which the lead passenger car slammed into the locomotive's undercarriage.

The state ordered Disneyland to retrain maintenance workers and ride operators and now requires a daily test run of all cars.

It was during one of those test runs in April when one train ran into the back of another. Disneyland officials said that the accident could have only occurred with the trains empty. The state again ordered more training. It was unclear Friday how the two most recent incidents differed.

Santa Ana attorney Wylie Aitken, representing the Torres family, said the evidence is building that there are systemic problems with the ride. "It's been my experience that every time one finds a symptom, there's often an underlying disease," Aitken said.

Even those who say the accident might just be a run of bad luck are finding Thursday's crash difficult to ignore.

"Perhaps it's a coincidence. Probably it's a coincidence," said David Koenig, author of "Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland."

"But three accidents in such a short time catches your attention. Every time Disneyland's name appears in a negative way in a newspaper or television newscast across the country, it's one more little chink in their armor. "

At Disneyland and on the Internet, fans debated the effects of the accident. Some suggested that coasters collide all the time. Some suggested that risks are inherent on roller coasters and that people are just looking for reasons to sue the company.

"How many people have gone through this place over the last 50 years and how many accidents have there been?" said Dennis Fyfe, 54, of Orange, visiting Disneyland on Friday. "Things happen. That's why they call them accidents."

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