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Loose rules leave Six Flags to investigate itself for park death

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After a jet recently crashed on a San Francisco runway, a pack of federal investigators swiftly arrived to figure out what went wrong.

When a Cirque du Soleil performer fell to her death during a Las Vegas show, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched its own investigation.

But when a Texas woman made a fatal plunge from a Six Flags roller coaster in Arlington on Friday, it was left to the amusement park company itself to decide what went wrong. 

Much of what flies, rises and falls in the United States -- from planes and trains to elevators -- is harnessed to state and federal regulations that dictate safety standards and give power to investigators to determine what happened when something goes awry.

But across the country, amusement parks -- such as Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington -- are bound to a patchwork set of safety regulations that vary from state to state, and that lack universal reporting guidelines for notifying the government about accidents, experts said Monday.

“The amusement-ride industry, for the most part, is self-regulated; we write our own rules," said Ken Martin, an amusement-ride safety analyst for KRM Consulting in Richmond, Va. What happened in Texas, he added, was “the exact opposite of what would have happened in California had this happened at Disneyland or Universal."

On Friday, 52-year-old Rosy Esparza climbed aboard the 14-story-high Texas Giant roller coaster with her son. Witness Carmen Brown of Arlington told the Dallas Morning News that Esparza expressed concern to a park employee that she was not secured correctly in her seat.

“He was basically nonchalant,” Brown told the newspaper. “He was, like, ‘As long as you heard it click, you’re fine.’ Hers was the only one that went down once, and she didn’t feel safe. But they let her still get on the ride.”

Esparza was thrown from the ride after it started, and Six Flags officials said park medical staff and local paramedics responded immediately. A Tarrant County medical examiner ruled that Esparza died of "multiple traumatic injuries" from the fall.

Shortly after Esparza's death, Six Flags issued a statement that said the company was "working closely with authorities to determine the cause of the accident." But it is not clear who those officials would be.

“Texas law doesn’t require that any kind of investigation be reported to us,” said Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance, which regulates Texas' amusement parks.

Six Flags officials did not respond to messages from the Los Angeles Times seeking more details Monday, except to issue a short written statement from spokeswoman Sharon Parker. "Friday’s accident remains under investigation by both company and external experts," it said. "Until complete, we will not comment or speculate on what happened."

Parker did not respond to a message asking who the external experts were. Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, which built the cars for the ride, was reportedly sending officials to look into the incident; Esparza's family had also reportedly retained an attorney, but they have not yet spoken to the media.

Under Texas law, amusement rides have an insurance-based regulatory system in which each ride must carry $1 million in liability insurance. Each ride also must be inspected once a year by a qualified engineer appointed by the insurance company, according to Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Hagins.

In case of an incident like the one at Six Flags, the ride is shut down until the insurance company's appointed engineer deems it safe to resume, Hagins said. There is no requirement that the company report what went wrong to the state.

That approach contrasts with California's regulatory system, in which the Amusement Ride and Tramway Unit investigates accidents at both fixed amusement parks such as Disneyland and also at state fairs and traveling carnivals.

"They [state investigators] can require changes for the ride or the ride procedure, and they can issue penalties and citations," said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, which runs the amusement-ride unit. "It depends on the nature of what happened."

California once had some of the nation's most relaxed amusement-ride regulations -- rides weren't inspected and accidents didn't have to be reported -- before a string of accidents and deaths resulted in more stringent state rules starting in 1999.

But standards vary across the country, and for that reason, it's not exactly clear how many accidents happen at amusement parks.

"There’s no national database, there’s no law nationally, that requires people to report accidents of all types," said safety analyst Martin. "The reason we know about this [death], is this lady was thrown from a roller coaster, she died, there were witnesses, and people activated the 911 system. ... It’s a possibility we would never have known about it."

Texas law does require that operators file quarterly reports of injuries and deaths, but one industry watchdog questioned the accuracy of such state-held data.

"We can check government data, but in the last couple years, a lot of information we’re getting, the state doesn’t have," said Jason Herrera, director of the Amusement Safety Organization, which tries to track consumer complaints of amusement-park accidents nationally.

Herrera said he'd received four complaints this year of neck pain from people who rode the Texas Giant roller coaster. "One of the major complaints we got from the ride, it was intense, and people felt like they were going side-to-side,” Herrera said. "I’ve been on the ride, and it’s intense. It definitely does throw you around."

Herrera said he was hoping to get more information about exactly what went wrong in Esparza's fatal plunge, but said that thus far officials have offered little.

He was among those who criticized the fact that Six Flags was allowed to investigate its own fatal incident.

"You’re not going to come out and say there’s issues with this ride," Herrera said. "For them to come out and do this investigation of their own ride, that’s not good. … Who knows what they’re hiding. It just opens up a lot of questions."

Martin, the Richmond, Va., expert, agreed. “There’s a good analogy, one a farmer would use: Would you want a fox guarding your henhouse?" he asked. 

Bill Avery, president of Avery Safety Consulting in Maitland, Fla., was more circumspect, but still thought third-party investigation was a better idea.

"It is a fresh and different set of eyes coming in, hopefully with an unbiased view," Avery said. "If you’re in the forest, it’s hard to see the trees. … That doesn’t mean Six Flags can’t or won’t do an excellent job; it means somebody from the outside could come in with a different view and perspective."

Avery added, "The last thing on earth an amusement park operator wants is a fatality."

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