Thrill seekers have a word for almost every moment aboard a roller coaster, and if they were to describe Sam Nguyen's position in the summer of 2001, they would say he was at the top of the lift hill. After all, Sam held a freshly minted season pass to Six Flags AstroWorld in Houston,and for a 13-year-old who thrived on the feel of his shoulders stapled into a harness, his stomach squashed into his throat and his head inverted, pleasure knew no better passport.
Sam became the most envied species of teen, the summer amusement-park rat. He strolled past the arching entry gate three times a week, boarded the Ultra Twister and churned through nine stories of drops and barrel rolls. Or he caught the Viper, a wild trip ending in a banked hammerhead so low and so sharp you could almost reach out of the car and pluck the grass.
Of course, when the lines backed up, Sam moved on. He hiked out late one July evening to an artfully crumbling corner of the Oriental Village, where a trail flanked by howling skulls and aggressive shrubbery led to the Mayan Mindbender. Rebuilt at AstroWorld in 1995, the coaster resembles Indiana Jones skiing Space Mountain: It caroms in total darkness inside a faux Mayan temple. Teens are delightfully horrified.
Sam rode four times back to back, and five minutes before closing time he found the typically massive line for the popular first car had vanished. He sat in the front; his friend John climbed in behind him and clutched his shirt. Restraint bars pressed against their laps, and the clacking lift pulled them above a sea of screams.
Three stories up, Sam raised his arms. The coaster dipped and jolted to the right, and his shirt was yanked out of John's hands. Sam was thrown from the car and sent flying. It felt like part of the ride until he crashed to the concrete and struggled to breathe, his face shattered and his throat choked with blood.
The next thing Sam remembers, he awoke to the prick of a surgeon sewing his eyelid shut. Every bone in his face had been broken. The fall splintered his hip, snapped his pelvis and fractured an ankle. A shard of bone lodged in his brain.
"I was like, 'How bad is it?'" Sam recalled when his parents arrived at Hermann Hospital. "I was really afraid because I thought I was blind."
It took him two months to open his eyes and another month to leave the hospital. He will never be able to run more than a short distance or play most sports, and he still bears a scar from ear to ear where surgeons peeled away his scalp and cheeks to reconstruct his face.
Sam's accident was clearly severe, but it was also less of a fluke than many AstroWorld visitors might expect. Hundreds of medical complications ranging from whiplash to torn organs have occurred at Houston amusement parks. And most galling to those injured, the parks could have taken steps to prevent them.
Roller coasters, with their towering spires and twisting spindles of steel, are temples to speed, gravity and, perhaps most of all, danger. Long lines offer hours to mull over the perils: One could fall out of a loop, sever a neck on a low-slung "headchopper" effect or simply fly off the track. Far from a deterrent, waiting for one's dose of sweaty-palmed terror has become one of the great rituals of modern life. The swamps have been tamed and the West won, but there's always the Serpent and the Gunslinger.
The amusement parks know their patrons want to court calamity, embrace horror and stare death in the face, as long as nobody gets hurt. That is why they trumpet the enhanced danger of each new ride, while reminding in a stage whisper that it's all a brilliant deception.
"When you compare the number of rides that are taken with the number of injuries that occur," says Beth Robertson, spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, "there is virtually no safer form of recreation."
According to one set of statistics, Robertson is right. About 300 million people visited fixed-site amusement parks in 2002--more than the population of the United States. Roughly 3,800 of those people were sent to the hospital. That's 13 people for every 1 million visitors, or about the same percentage of dorks injured in a given day playing Ping-Pong.
But critics say the story told by those numbers is about as clear as the water in AstroWorld's Lil' Buccaneer Bay--which is suspiciously yellow. The Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates the injuries through a network of about 100 hospitals. Only one of those hospitals was near an amusement park. When that hospital quit the program in 2001 after intense lobbying by the parks, the number of reported injuries fell 10 percent. Change the hospitals, and the parks might not look so safe.
Of course, whatever one chooses to believe about the frequency of injuries, Robertson says, the accidents are clearly almost never caused by the parks. "One of the things we talk about is that guests really need to be our partners in safety," she says. "They need to read the signs and listen to the verbal commands given by the operators and follow the rules."
If Sam had followed the rules aboard the Mayan Mindbender, he wouldn't have fallen off, AstroWorld says. As he lay facedown in a pool of blood on the concrete below the track, an AstroWorld supervisor, Diedra Wuenschel, squatted next to him and began asking questions. Wuenschel later quoted Sam in a statement as saying, "I was jumping up and down on my seat."
After Sam's fa-ther sued to reclaim his son's medical bills, the jumping comment became the core of AstroWorld's defense. The park even created a computer-animated video showing Sam standing on the coaster and being jettisoned at the first turn. But Sam denied ever standing up or jumping. And his attorney, Vuk Vujasinovic, argued the teenager could have flown out even while sitting down.
Manufactured by the Vekoma company in Germany, the 12 cars of the Mayan Mindbender trains use a common type of restraint known as the T-bar. The bar telescopes out from the floor and pivots down against riders' laps. It locks into position when the teeth of two sets of ratchets inside the car clamp together.
Reviewing the maintenance log for the Mayan Mindbender, Vujasinovic found a surprisingly fresh record of problems with the lap bars. For example, one week before the accident, an AstroWorld mechanic wrote, "need parts for lap bars ratchet assembly." Two days later, a mechanic determined that cars three, five and 10 had "bad ratchets." And three days before the accident, AstroWorld shut down the entire coaster because of "inop. lap bars."
Vujasinovic also found surprising holes in the park's maintenance procedures, casting further doubt on whether the lap bars were working properly before Sam fell out. The user's manual for the Mindbender requires the locking teeth of the restraint bars to be replaced "if more than 20 percent of the tooth height is worn off." But the ride's mechanic was unaware of the requirements, which were also absent from the park's maintenance guidelines. Vujasinovic's ride expert, former Walt Disney senior facility design manager Edward Pribonic, was aghast. "There was no inspection I would consider anywhere near proper on that lap bar," he said, adding that the maintenance of the Mindbender was the poorest he'd ever seen.
Even so, the strongest piece of evidence against AstroWorld came from the park itself. Two months after the accident, ride mechanic Tony Solis inspected Sam's Mindbender car and determined the lap bar had "an intermittent locking malfunction." Solis later explained in a deposition that this meant "the teeth in the ratchet weren't locking right." It was basically an admission: The lap bar could have come undone during a ride.
In a second line of defense, AstroWorld argued that the lap bars scarcely mattered. Park supervisor Wuenschel said the purpose of the braces was simply "to remind guests to stay seated while riding the ride." But the manufacturer's specifications for the coaster tell a slightly different story. They say the braces "hold" passengers and "serve to keep [them] seated during the ride."
Given AstroWorld's laid-back stance toward the Mindbender restraints, riders might expect the park to claim that flying from the coaster is impossible in any case where a passenger is even remotely sitting down. But in fact, in one of the last depositions from the case, park engineer Ed Fritsch said Sam could have fallen out of the coaster if his rear end was just six inches off the seat.
Vujasinovic was shocked. "I don't think anyone would expect that," he said, adding that any number of scenarios could cause riders to fall out under those conditions. "Let's say a rider is trying to move back in their seat and they want to pick their rear end up to move back, or let's say a kid is excited about being on the ride and they put their hands up and lift a little bit," he said. "These are things that you see all the time."
How to hold a person inside a roller coaster has been a vexing concern for generations of mechanical engineers. The architects of America's first coaster ride were among the few ride designers to avoid the problem: Their Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway topped out at 6 mph. But 120 years after the ride opened on Coney Island, speeds aboard coasters have increased more than tenfold, and engineers still haven't figured out how to keep their machines reliably attached to patrons.
The perennial restraint problem surfaced most recently at the Six Flags New England amusement park in Agawam, Massachusetts, where last month Stanley Mobarsky boarded the Superman Ride of Steel. Mobarsky was clamped in with a T-bar--the same mode of restraint used aboard the Mayan Mindbender--then hoisted up with an eight-car train.
Voted the best roller coaster in the world when it was built in 2000, the Ride of Steel plunged Mobarsky down an 80-mph descent, bumped him over several high-speed camel humps and in the last turn threw him out of the car. Eyewitnesses said his body spun like a Frisbee, hit the rail and fell to the ground. He was pronounced dead a few minutes later.
Compared with other riders aboard the coaster, Mobarsky had been a prime candidate for ejection. He was 5 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds and confined to an electric scooter. His family said he never should have been allowed aboard the ride.
Nevertheless, the Mobarskys of the world account for only a portion of the body types at risk from roller coasters, safety advocates say. The average lap bar will fit midsize adults quite well, but small teenagers such as Sam board at their own peril. "It's great for people who are 170 pounds," says Kathy Fackler, founder of Safer Parks, "but the farther away you get from that, the ride ain't going to work for you...So if they don't restrict people beyond those ranges, [staying in the ride] is just luck, sort of."
The parks say any ejection from a roller coaster--especially when the passenger isn't trying to jump out--is a fluke. To back themselves up, they cite studies such as a 2002 report released by the state of Florida, which showed 76 percent of amusement-park accidents were directly attributable to "patron error."
Yet "error"--or rider misbehavior, as the parks often call it--is hard to define. For example, AstroWorld tells roller-coaster passengers to keep their hands on shoulder harnesses and restraint bars. In fact, the park accused Sam of breaking that rule aboard the Mindbender. But AstroWorld's own 2004 Park Map serves as a hopelessly debauched role model: Kids plunge down rides while blithely waving their arms in the air.
Fackler says a closer analysis of the injuries shows riders might not be the villains the parks suggest. State regulators in New Jersey keep the most detailed records in the nation on amusement-park injuries, dividing the accidents into five categories. The overwhelming majority in 2000 were accidents classed as inadvertent rider mishaps. "If somebody accidentally bumps their head on a ride, that's an inadvertent rider mishap," says E.J. Miranda, representative for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Those accidents accounted for 84 percent of injuries, while just 1 percent were caused by rider misbehavior.
Even with no help from riders whatsoever, the parks still commit blunders. Mechanical failure and operator error accounted for 4 percent of accidents in New Jersey. And New Jersey has "some of the toughest regulations out there," Fackler says. Ride problems in Texas are harder to classify because regulators don't analyze the causes of theme-park injuries. But at AstroWorld, egregious mistakes aren't hard to find:
On the Texas Tornado roller coaster in 1998, a six-car train had nearly reached the top of the first hill when smoke began wafting from the track. The coaster lost its grip on the chain lift, slid back down the hill into the loading station and crashed into a fully occupied train. Seven people went to the hospital, and at least two sued after developing neck and back problems.
More recently, Brandon Jones was injured while riding the Texas Cyclone when a 12-foot, 2-by-6-inch board fell off the wooden coaster's scaffolding and hit him in the head. Another passenger aboard the ride told a television newscast last year that someone on a previous train had warned the attendants about a loose board, but the park kept the coaster running anyway.
The lack of action seems almost excusable compared with the gung-ho snap of Kevin Froelich and Deanna Lee, ride attendants in 2000 at the Tidal Wave. A flume designed to plunge passengers down a series of slides in a small boat, the Tidal Wave was dependent upon a stream of pumped water. When an alarm signaled that the water level had fallen, the attendants overrode the warnings, a lawsuit alleged, and loaded a boat with Michael and Laine Dominice and their son Troy. The Dominices were drifting toward the final drop-off when the water slowed to a trickle and their craft was stranded. Froelich and Lee decided to push the boat over the precipice. The Dominices were severely injured in the fall and, through their lawsuit, recovered $150,000.
A spokesman for AstroWorld says such incidents are exceptions. "I can tell you 99.99 percent of our guests enjoy a safe and fun visit at our parks," says public relations manager Daryl Freedman. "So it's extremely rare [to suffer an injury], especially if it's something that might be ride-related."
But pinning down the true accident rate at AstroWorld is tough. The Texas Department of Insurance reports 329 people have been injured at the park since 1988, when the state began requiring parks to report injuries that result in medical treatment. But apparently AstroWorld is at least occasionally inclined to conceal them. Three people were sent to the hospital when the board fell from the Texas Cyclone last year, for example, but not a single injury on the ride shows up that year in the state's accident tally.
Emphasizing its reputation for safety, the amusement-park industry has successfully battled over the past 25 years to exempt itself from government regulation. In 1981, the industry won an amendment to the Consumer Product Safety Act making all fixed-site amusement parks immune from federal control.
To this day, the parks remain stubbornly antiregulatory. "We doubt the federal government could do more to improve our already excellent safety record," says industry spokesperson Robertson.
U.S. Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, disagrees. He has been fighting for five years to get a hearing on a bill to revoke the exemption, but it's stalled in a committee chaired by a Republican from Orlando--ground zero for the Walt Disney Co.
"My hope is the Republican Party will finally realize there will be more deaths and injuries unless they create a federal standard," Markey says. "We have federal standards for automobiles, for baby carriages, for safety caps on medicine, but not on rides that go 60 to 80 miles per hour that result in death and injury every summer."
Underscoring the case for federal control, Markey's office tabulated the amusement-park industry's safety record and compared it with that of the transportation industry. Based on 14 deaths from amusement-park rides between 1997 and 2000, it found roller coasters that period were more dangerous than buses, trains and airplanes, which are all subject to national laws.
The only standard currently regulating AstroWorld rides is Texas law, but that's not saying much. Clerks in the Texas Department of Insurance are told to make sure the parks comply with a set of safety standards drawn up, for the most part, by the amusement-park industry. The clerks rely on private insurance agents to inspect each ride once a year and whenever an accident occurs. This means the only people who evaluate amusement-park accidents in Texas are people who work for companies that must pay for them if the parks are to blame. In other states, they call this a conflict of interest: "Their mission isn't to keep the public safe," says Markey's staffer David Moulton. "Their mission is to make sure their shareholders get returns for their business."
Even with the insurance premiums, the Texas Cyclone has been a stupendous investment for AstroWorld. By the coaster's 25th anniversary in 2001, it was still an emblem of the park, and managers decided to boost its popularity even more. They invited television cameras and threw a silver-anniversary bash for the coaster, complete with a birthday cake and disco music. They called the event the Retro Revive. Sometime shortly before or after the celebration, the park removed the headrests that had been installed as part of safety measures following an earlier accident (and with them, the ride's neck support). They were never replaced.
Standing next to a train of Cyclone cars in a peeling service shed last month, AstroWorld maintenance director Kent Maulsby explained the decision. "As [the coaster] reached a gentler form, we were able to remove the headrests," he said, "and that dramatically improved the guest experience."
Asked why the coaster was gentler, Maulsby explained the track had been reprofiled, creating a smoother ride. But questioned further, he said reprofiling has been a regular part of the coaster's maintenance for at least 20 years.
If safety went retro on the Cyclone, the coaster purists aren't about to complain. "It's just perfect," says Mike Robinson, a local coaster fanatic who visits parks nationwide and posts ride photos on his Web site. "I wouldn't change a thing."
While dangers might have lurked at AstroWorld in the past, other parks weren't necessarily safer. At the State Fair of Texas in 1983, William Phillips boarded the Enterprise, a giant pinwheel that spun 20 cars around, first parallel to the ground, then vertically. Phillips' car snapped off, flew into the midway and killed him. Seven others were hospitalized. His family sued the ride operator and manufacturer and won $10 million.
"What we found was the ride had been recalled in Europe," says the family's Dallas attorney, Frank L. Branson, "but because there were no standards in the United States, it wasn't recalled here."
The state fair took the accident seriously and applied permanent safety changes to its entire midway. The fair now requires rides to be inspected before they're booked, once they arrive on-site and a third time by an insurance inspector. Fair inspectors also examine the rides on a daily basis, often with X-ray machines that can detect the type of internal cracks that caused Phillips' Enterprise car to break free.
AstroWorld also maintains a detailed safety program. A full-time staff of 50 maintenance workers conducts daily visual inspections of rides. More intricate inspections are performed on a weekly basis, and once a year the park strips down major components on every ride and closely examines them.
But the state fair's safety reforms have received more attention. They earned praise from the Consumer Products Safety Commission and were copied in 12 other states, according to a 1997 story in The Dallas Morning News. The fair has even taken a pass on high-profile rides accepted elsewhere. It demanded the operators of the Wildcat roller coaster make electrical changes before opening day in 1999 and rejected the coaster when the changes weren't ready.
Of course, the state fair's inspections haven't eliminated all accidents. Based on statistics collected by the Texas Department of Insurance, since 1999, 18 injuries have occurred at the midway. But those numbers pale in comparison to the 47 injuries reported at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, especially considering that the rodeo's sole ride contractor, Ray Cammack Shows, was cited for violating the state's long-standing amusement-park-injury-disclosure law and has reported injuries for only the years 2002 and 2003.
A decade after the Enterprise death, the state fair was arguably ahead of even many permanent amusement parks in safety. Instead of heeding the warning signs raised by ride injuries on the Cyclone in Houston, Six Flags built an even bigger wooden roller coaster at its new park in San Antonio. When the aptly dubbed Rattler opened at Fiesta Texas in 1992, it was the tallest, fastest and steepest wooden coaster in the country.
And by many accounts, it was one of the most dangerous. Fiesta Texas reported 13 injuries at the park during the 1992 and 1993 seasons. But many incidents went unreported those years: Ambulance documents revealed 80 people had complained of head and back pain after riding the coaster. A loose-knit group of 27 accident victims later sued the park to recoup money for their injuries.
"It's an infamous ride in amusement-park history," says David Adkisson, the lead attorney in the case. Adkisson argued that the Rattler's first harrowing plunge had been lengthened to preserve the coaster's record-breaking status, without enough consideration for the effects on riders. He hired Raymond Bradley, a NASA engineer who had earlier uncovered flaws in the Cyclone as part of a lawsuit arising from an accident; he measured 12 g's on the ride. The advertised g's were 3.5.
"They just kept trying to run it year after year," says Adkisson, who settled the cases in 1998 for $3.5 million. "They should have just torn it down and started it over again."
The original first descent on the Rattler was shortened 42 feet by 1994, reducing the coaster's speed from 73 to 65 mph. But by then, roller coasters at other parks were traveling at nearly 100.
Kids soon would line up at AstroWorld for rides such as the Serial Thriller and Dungeon Drop. They were demanding more speed, bigger plunges and wilder loops. These marvels are now possible through computer modeling. But as rides at AstroWorld finally blast off, new questions are emerging about whether the human body can keep pace.
Patty Kravetz, a cosmetology teacher at Houston's Magnolia High School, took her class to AstroWorld at the end of the 2000 school year for a day of thrills. Thin, tanned and muscular in her early 40s, she happily followed her students aboard the park's most hair-raising adventures. And no ride musses teenage coiffures faster than the Dungeon Drop--a tower that lifts passengers straight up and releases them in a 20-story freefall.
Kravetz's students towed her aboard the Dungeon Drop around 10:30 p.m. She was clamped into a shoulder harness, hoisted skyward with her legs dangling in the air and briefly afforded a stunning view of downtown. Then she plunged toward the ground so fast her legs lifted straight out. She hit 62 mph in less than three seconds, giant magnets engaged, and the wrenching halt ripped a hole in her stomach. The fat of her stomach lining ejected through the opening and bulged into her navel.
Stepping out of the ride, Kravetz couldn't stand up straight without inducing severe pain. But she felt she had to watch over her school group, so she sat for another two hours on a park bench. Only the next day, after she started throwing up, did she go to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed her with an epigastric hernia and patched her with eight staples and 35 internal stitches.
"I've had a hysterectomy, and I've had a daughter," she says, "and this was worse than either. It was 10 times worse the pain."
The Dungeon Drop fall wasn't the first time Kravetz had suffered a hernia. The rip in her stomach occurred in the same place where surgeons had repaired a tear eight years earlier. Nevertheless, she sued AstroWorld to recover damages and to force the park to change the ride. Her doctors testified the tissue had been healthy when the rip occurred. And she said she had no way of knowing the ride could reopen healed wounds.
The tunnel leading to the Dungeon Drop is modeled on a medieval torture chamber, but AstroWorld says real injuries aboard the ride are nearly impossible. According to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, the most powerful amusement-park rides subject riders to four to six g's. Those forces are less than the jolt of hopping off a step or plopping into a low-backed office chair.
Even so, some doctors are skeptical. Howard Speth, a New Jersey pathologist and amusement-park safety consultant, documented 68 cases of injuries that appeared to be caused by roller coasters. In 2002, Representative Markey convened a blue ribbon panel through the Brain Injury Association of America and asked the members to analyze Speth's cases.
But the panel never examined the Speth data, claiming it wasn't collected in a uniform fashion. Instead, the researchers looked at published literature in the subject and concluded that "the overwhelming majority of riders will suffer no ill effects" and the most susceptible risk groups--people with prior health problems--"are already warned against riding."
The findings surprised some researchers, among them Faris Bandak, a neurology professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the former director of the head-injury research program at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Given the tissue strength of the blood vessels in the brain and given the pressure gradients they experience from roller coaster ride dynamics, the potential for injury is not unrealistic," Bandak says. "And those attributes that make us susceptible are not always associated with abnormality," he adds. "They are within what has been defined as normal for us."
For now, forces aboard most amusement rides don't come close to the voluntary limits set by the industry. "The limits are quite high," Moulton says, "so what that means from a public health perspective bears monitoring."
After two years of legal wrangling with AstroWorld, the park approached Kravetz with a proposal to settle. She was offered $12,000 on the condition that she abandon her demand that the park alter the Dungeon Drop. Kravetz accepted, and she has never returned.
"I thought, 'You've got this huge theme park, you know it's going to attract kids and families, and then you don't care about what happens to people on your rides?' I decided, 'You aren't getting my money anymore.'"
Of course, one lost customer is a small price to pay to keep the adrenaline junkies coming back. A young man with a red ponytail and a lip ring strapped himself into the Dungeon Drop last month with masochistic glee. Along with the Serial Thriller, it is his favorite ride. "It's totally awesome," he said. "It puts your stomach in your fucking throat."
Unlike most of his peers, Sam now limits himself to the tamest hoists and pulleys, such as the elevator leading to his attorney's office on the 10th floor of the Binz Law Center. He was running a few minutes late for an appointment last month and walked in wheezing. Until an operation last year, he couldn't breathe through his nose at all. Now he gets by with a constricted nasal passage that makes him seem at times like an asthmatic in gym class.
Sam won an out-of-court settlement against AstroWorld two years ago, and although the payout was confidential, court documents reveal it was in excess of a million dollars, probably making him the richest 10th-grader in the history of Lamar High School.
Even so, a few million dollars is barely a drop in the wavepool to AstroWorld. The park doesn't reveal its attendance figures or revenues, but the industry Web site Amusementbusiness.com estimates 1.7 million people visited last year. With standard ticket prices pushing above $40, the park easily could have grossed more than $700 million.
It's hard to know how AstroWorld spent the money, but most of it probably didn't go toward new roller coasters and better safety harnesses. According to an AstroWorld fansite, the park's newest coaster, the popular Serial Thriller, was built for $10 million, most of which would have gone to its design and assembly. At those prices, not much would be left for detailed safety studies by the manufacturer.
Instead, the task of scrutinizing safety design has fallen to the U.S. government, which is conducting its first ever industry-wide analysis of amusement-ride restraints. A representative for the Consumer Products Safety Commission declined to discuss preliminary results.
Sam wishes the government and AstroWorld had paid more attention to restraints before he rode the Mayan Mindbender. Instead of receiving money after the accident, he would have preferred to go to class like the rest of the students in middle school, without a wheelchair, scars and constant migraines. Regaining a normal life has been tough.
A stellar student in seventh grade, Sam missed a semester after his accident and never caught up. Headaches sent him home at least once a week. He slipped into low-level classes and struggled to learn. His A's and B's turned to B's, D's and F's. And his headaches have carried over into high school. Teachers told him last month he could be expelled for missing too many days of class.
Bitterness sometimes gets the best of him. "I can't concentrate, I still have to take a lot of drugs, and I still feel like crap because of my headaches," he says. "I can't even run no more or play sports."
Sam's persistent woes have made it all the more difficult for him to believe AstroWorld keeps running the Mindbender without so much as a public admission of its real dangers. The park posts boilerplate signs dissuading people with heart and neck problems from the coaster, but Sam's attorney, Vujasinovic, suggests a more general caveat. It would say: "Warning: These T-bars are not meant to keep you in this ride, and if you sit up more than six inches on your seat, you could be thrown out."
Activists say the parks also need to post the signs at their entry gates so people can read them before they pay. "They do everything they can to make people drop their fears at the door so they get them in," Fackler says, "and then they screen them out later, like you get to the ride and all of a sudden there is a warning."
Sam's accident served as enough warning to all of his friends. None of them visits the park. Though sometimes he hears about kids at Lamar who know about his accident but ride the coaster anyway. He wants the government to shut down the ride. "Roller coasters aren't as safe as you think," he says.
Wet and Wild
Think water rides are cool?
Take a look at the lifeguards.
In the swimming hierarchy of shark, guppy and tadpole, Sean Rothrock ranked firmly on the lower end of the scale, perhaps somewhere between crab and sea urchin. The teenager could float and paddle in the deep end of the Wild Wave Pool at Houston's SplashTown, but when the water began to churn, it dragged him under.
Sean's younger brother Brandon tried to save him. Sean was flailing violently, and he grabbed his sibling and pulled him beneath the waves. Tiffany Cook, 16, heroically dragged Brandon to safety and swam with him toward the edge of the pool screaming for help.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Jeffrey Dice noticed Sean had sunk and told a lifeguard. But the lifeguard didn't believe him and asked him to go make sure. So Jeffrey dove back in, saw Sean lying unconscious on the pool floor and tried to pull him to the surface. Sean was too heavy, and Jeffrey gave up, swam back to the lifeguard and said yes, someone really is drowning.
Sean had been underwater at least five minutes by the time 16-year-old park visitor Christina Powers finally managed to pull his lifeless body to the surface and drag him to the edge of the pool. His lungs and stomach were filled with water, and he wasn't breathing.
Only then did the lifeguards notice him and drag him from the pool, banging his head several times against the tiles on the way.
Several of the professional rescuers looked at his pale body and began crying. "They had kids working as lifeguards," said attorney Michael Engelhart, who recounted the ordeal in a lawsuit filed in 2001 by Sean's parents, whose son miraculously survived his ordeal. "They probably had some sort of certification, but when the shit hit the fan, they didn't react."
Houston's two water parks, SplashTown, off Interstate 45 north, and WaterWorld, an annex of AstroWorld, bill themselves as perfect for kids. "The whole family will enjoy dozens of splashy water adventures," says the SplashTown Web site. But both parks are owned by Six Flags, which hires lifeguards as young as 16. Problems with the parks' lifesaving force have existed for years.
During WaterWorld's grand opening in 1983, a young girl fell into a swimming pool. The girl's mother didn't see her fall and ran screaming to the lifeguards, begging them to find her. They never did. A swimmer noticed her first, but by then the woman's only child had been underwater too long to survive.
"People were furious," said attorney Howard Nations, who negotiated a confidential settlement for the mother and recounted the incident in an interview. "They came up and made statements that the lifeguards weren't doing anything.
"We had testimony that they were much more interested in all the young women running around in their bikinis."
Rescue efforts also haven't been too snappy at other Six Flags water rides. At Arlington's Six Flags Over Texas in 1999, park visitor Wendy Crown observed a raft flip on the Roaring Rapids ride, but was told by the teenage employees not to jump in and save the riders because only the emergency response team could do that. When the team didn't quickly arrive, Crown jumped in anyway. But she and other patrons couldn't rescue everyone. A young mother, Valeria Cartwright, drowned.
Attorney Dwain Dent, who recovered $4 million for Cartwright's family, attributes the accident, in part, to the inexperience of the park's young employees. "We probably wouldn't let our children be driven around by another teen who just received a license to drive a car," he says, "but in these multimillion-dollar parks, the very people we wouldn't allow to drive our own kids have been put in charge of some of the largest and most dangerous equipment imaginable. It's shocking."
AstroWorld's Lynda Baldwin, who oversees employee training, doesn't see a problem with hiring young recruits. "If you are well-trained when you are 16, 18 or 30, you are well-trained," she says. "I don't think it's about whether they have taken a high school exam. It's about how well they are trained to do the task."
But safety isn't always as simple as pulling drowning kids from the chlorinated surf. Water-park injury claims culled from local lawsuits show a wide range of potential threats:
··· In 2003, a girl on a slide at WaterWorld was descending when the water stopped. She was thrust forward and broke her wrist.
··· In 2002, water from the tipping bucket at SplashTown's Treehouse Island hit a young child with so much force that it slammed her to the ground, "causing her to suffer severe permanent injuries."
··· The same year, the teeth of Robyn Young's 2-year-old toddler were ripped out when he descended a slide.
··· In 2001, a man fell off a tube on a ride at WaterWorld and suffered spinal injuries.
Park officials say injuries are extremely rare on water rides. But Dent believes the parks could prevent more accidents if they paid more to maintain rides and hire qualified employees.
"It's purely profit over safety," he says. "There's no question about it." --Josh Harkinson
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- That's It Then: The Cowboys 2015 Season Gets Put Out of Its Misery
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast