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Parks Close 2 Rides in Safety Move

Complying with a state request, Knott's and Six Flags each shut down a roller coaster that uses a restraint involved in recent fatal accidents.

June 02, 2004|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

State investigators Tuesday asked Knott's Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain to each shut down one roller coaster equipped with a restraint system that has been the focus of investigations in two recent fatal accidents out of state.

Both parks said they would comply with the request, which comes as amusement parks enter their peak season. State officials said it is the first time they have requested safety improvements based on accidents outside California.

At issue is a T-shaped lap bar on rides manufactured by Switzerland-based Intamin AG. California investigators found the bar partially to blame in 2001 when a Duarte mother fell 115 feet to her death from the Perilous Plunge water ride at Knott's Berry Farm.

Concerns were revived in April, when a 16-year-old girl died at a theme park in Wales after falling 100 feet from Hydro, an Intamin ride nearly identical to Perilous Plunge.

Less than a month later, on May 1, a 55-year-old man died after falling from Superman: Ride of Steel, another Intamin attraction with a T-bar restraint, at Six Flags New England. Massachusetts officials ordered a shutdown of all rides with similar restraints, prompting regulators in other states to call for a national ride registry and look closely at whether they should take similar action.

With those cases in mind, officials from the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health on Tuesday asked Knott's Berry Farm to close Xcelerator and asked Six Flags Magic Mountain to close Superman: The Escape until fixes can be made.

"We've asked them to modify the restraint systems to enhance the safety of the rides and keep the rides closed until modifications are made," said department spokesman Dean Fryer.

In the past, the state has ordered changes only on rides that had accidents.

Fryer said state investigators have not issued an official order to shut down the two attractions because the parks agreed to comply. Both parks previously had said the equipment was safe and that the rides did not need to close.

Six Flags officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon. The company has said it has begun changing restraints on some of its other attractions, including the Superman roller coaster in Massachusetts.

Susan Tierney, a Knott's spokeswoman, said the park voluntarily closed the Xcelerator coaster while park officials decide what to do. It's unclear when the ride will reopen, she said.

Intamin officials could not be reached for comment at their Maryland headquarters.

Even after Massachusetts suspended rides with similar restraints, other attractions across the country continue to operate. There is no federal agency to track deaths and trends or order a nationwide shutdown. And there is no national ride registry to determine how many T-shaped lap bars are in operation.

Following the May accident, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) renewed his call for federal legislation that would grant oversight of amusement parks to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And regulators in New Jersey, Massachusetts and California all acknowledged the need for a federal clearinghouse for amusement park data.

Consumer advocate Kathy Fackler, who has lobbied for both state and federal oversight of amusement parks, praised the state's action Tuesday.

"I'm pleased that California has a regulatory program now so that critical changes can be made before lives are lost," Fackler said. "For the first time, I have a little bit of faith that these chronic serious failures can be caught."

But Fackler, whose son was injured in an accident on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland, said it is only a first step.

She noted serious problems with one-size-fits-all lap bars made by other companies that fail to protect small children. A 7-year-old girl died in New York last week after falling out of the Mind Scrambler at Rye Playland. She is one of several children who have fallen out of spider-arm shaped attractions.

"Although I'm very pleased that this change is being propagated across Intamin rides by state regulators, why is it OK for these children to keep coming out of rides all over the country with restraints that are sized for 175-pound riders?" Fackler said.

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