A Brief History of Death and Six Flags

We're still not sure exactly what caused Rosy Esparza's fatal plunge from the Texas Giant at Six Flags on Friday evening. Witnesses told The Dallas Morning News that the Dallas resident told the ride operator that she wasn't properly secured, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram talked to a couple who reported seeing Esparza's family members frantically trying to get her off the ride before it began.

And then, this: "Just witnessed someone fly off of the Texas giant two seats in front of me," one rider tweeted. "... Coaster turned and she was gone."

Six Flags' announcement over the weekend that it will conduct an internal investigation isn't likely to inspire confidence in the fairness and objectivity of the findings.

Esparza is not the first to die at a Six Flags amusement park. They tend to be relatively safe places, all things considered -- I suspect the car ride home is several times more dangerous -- but mix fast speeds, heavy machinery, and human judgment together enough times, and someone's bound to get hurt. Here's a quick (and probably incomplete) review:

Six Flags Over Texas: Remarkably, the theme park's flagship had recorded only one death in the 52 years leading up to Thursday. It came in 1999 as 28-year-old Valeria Cartwright of West Helena, Arkansas, rode Roaring Rapids, the not-terribly-extreme water ride featuring the circular boats that hold a dozen passengers. As the vessel swept across the three-foot-deep water, one of the rubber bladders keeping it afloat deflated, causing it to capsize. Ten of her fellow passengers suffered minor injuries, but Cartright drowned after being pinned beneath the overturned boat. Six Flags ultimately paid her family $4 million.

Six Flags Over Mid-America: It was 1984, and the St. Louis park had just finished refitting one of its existing roller coasters into the Rail Blazer by adding several new features, most notably one requiring passengers to stand up. That's what Stella Holcomb, a 46-year-old visiting from Indianapolis, was doing when she was suddenly flung from the ride. The park explained at the time that Holcomb had fainted. Her husband, Carl, disagreed.

"'I had hold of her hand when she left me,'' he told reporters. ''I was there. She like to pull me out. That car was just like a whip. It jerked real bad when we came around that curve and she just flipped out.''

The stand-up feature was quietly scrapped, and the ride retained its original name: the River King Mine Train.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom: The Bay Area outlet, under the Six Flags umbrella since 1999, appears to have escaped human fatalities. Makonnen, the park's 2-year-old giraffe, was not so fortunate. One night in September 2007, just after 2 a.m., a fire broke out in the giraffe barn. Two females escaped into an enclosure outside the building, but Makonnen could not. He died of apparent smoke inhalation.

Six Flags America: On July 4, 2005, 29-year-old Maria Salazar slid down the Shark Attack, the D.C.-area park's 220-foot water slide. Passersby found her at the bottom, floating unconscious. Paramedics attempted to resuscitate her but failed. She was taken to a local hospital where it was determined that she had died of a heart attack.

Jeff Palmer, a 50-year-old visitor quoted by the Washington Post, was totally bummed.

"It's unfortunate that happened because this place is supposed to be fun," he told the paper. "It's a real downer on a fun day at the park."

Six Flags Elitch Gardens: In May of 2002, a 24-year-old man fell to his death from the Denver park's Rainbow ride. Park officials said he was part of a group outing for "mentally challenged" individuals and that he had unlatched his seat belt, slid from underneath his safety restraint and fell to the ground.

Six Flags Over Georgia: On May 26, 2002, the day before the death in Denver, a 56-year-old employee was in a restricted area beneath Batman: The Ride when a passenger's dangling leg, traveling at or near the coaster's 50-mile-per-hour top speed, struck him in the head.

Six Flags Magic Mountain: Pearl Santos, 28, already had a brain aneurysm when she stepped on the Goliath coaster at the L.A. park in 2001. But it was the stress of the ride that "most likely" caused it to rupture, according to an autopsy. She was found unresponsive as her car pulled into the station.

Six Flags New England: The mother of 55-year-old Stanley Modarsky didn't think her son should have been allowed to board the Superman Ride of Steel that day in 2004. "How could anybody as heavy as he was go up and spin up in the air like a yo-yo?" she told the Associated Press. "It doesn't make any sense. He was over 200 pounds, maybe 225 pounds."

He also had cerebral palsy and traveled via motorized scooter, but was able to board the coaster by himself. Witnesses said he came out of his harness as the ride hit a curve, spun through the air, and hit a rail before falling to the ground.

Six Flags Great Adventure: Scott Tyler, a 20-year-old employee of the New Jersey park, plunged to his death during a test ride of the Rolling Thunder coaster in 1981. The ride was in good shape. The park told the Associated Press that Tyler "may have assumed an unauthorized riding position that did not make use of the safety feature of the restraining devices.''

The park had no such ready explanation for what happened three years later, in the deadliest accident in Six Flags' history. On May 11, 1984 the Haunted Castle -- less a castle than a painted collection of semi-trailers -- caught fire.

"After walking a while we noticed something was choking us,'' one 20-year-old patron told The New York Times, describing her frantic escape from the pitch-dark maze. ''Being that it was a haunted castle, we thought it was something to scare us "

The building, which had no sprinkler system or apparent escape plan, went up in a flash, killing eight teenagers who were trapped inside. Six Flags was indicted for, and later acquitted of, aggravated manslaughter.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson