A roller coaster attendant at Six Flags Magic Mountain fell while trying to cross the tracks Thursday and was killed by a train of cars loaded with merrymakers, park executives said.
Cherie La Motte, 25, of Valencia, a part-time employee for about two years, died shortly after being struck by the cars of the Revolution roller coaster about 3 p.m., park spokesman Palmer Moody said.
No one else was injured in the tragedy that struck just as the summer amusement park season got underway.
La Motte stepped onto the tracks in front of the loading area where she worked about the same time that a five-car train--which had been standing still in a staging area a few feet away with returning passengers--started up again to complete the ride, park representatives said. She was thrown from the tracks into a cramped pit below, where paramedics found her dead of massive injuries, said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Al Schriver.
A park representative estimated that the train, starting from a dead stop, was traveling about 4 mph at the time of impact.
Deputy Britta Tubbs, a sheriff's spokeswoman, said that investigating deputies believe that La Motte tried to cross the tracks from the side where passengers disembark to the side where incoming passengers board the newly vacated cars. As she did so, Tubbs said, La Motte slipped into the 4-foot-deep pit and was struck by the train pulling into the station, apparently killing her instantly.
"It was purely an accidental death" with "no evidence of foul play," so the Sheriff's Department turned the investigation of the matter over to park executives, Tubbs told reporters Thursday night.
Valencia neighbors who asked that their identities not be disclosed described La Motte as "a great kid, she was sweet." La Motte's family was in seclusion.
"We don't know why she decided to step out onto the track," said Del Holland, president of Six Flags California, which manages the park. Roller coaster workers are "instructed they don't cross the track until the train has entered the station," he said.
"It was impossible to react," Holland said of the other five employees on the scene, including one operating the controls.
La Motte's death was the park's first fatal accident involving an employee, Holland said.
A Magic Mountain patron, Carolina Flores, 20, died in a highly publicized accident in 1978, when she was ejected from the Colossus roller coaster, at that time billed as the world's largest and fastest thrill ride.
Holland said the Revolution roller coaster--one of 10 in the park--will be closed while Magic Mountain investigates the death and reviews safety and training procedures for all rides.
Although it has since been eclipsed by wilder rides, the Revolution, the world's first giant looping roller coaster, remains a popular attraction and has been featured in films such as "Rollercoaster" and "National Lampoon's Vacation." It debuted in 1976 and was named for both its loop-the-loop ride and that year's bicentennial of the American Revolution.
It can carry 20 riders in five linked cars that reach a top speed of 55 mph over the ride's 2 1/2-minute duration. Riders experience forces close to five Gs--five times the force of gravity--at the bottom of the teardrop-shaped loop.
An investigator for the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigates theme park accidents, was dispatched to the scene to interview witnesses and inspect equipment.
The only complaint against Magic Mountain received within the past three years by Cal/OSHA dealt with employee safety around standing water surrounding an attraction, agency spokesman Rick Rice said. An investigation determined that employees wore gloves and boots as mandated, and no citations were issued.
In 1984, the Six Flags Great Adventure park in New Jersey--one of eight Six Flags theme parks nationwide--witnessed one of the worst amusement-park accidents in recent history when eight teenagers perished in a fire inside the Haunted Castle attraction. The blaze was sparked by another teenager who used a cigarette lighter to find his way through the dimly lit labyrinth.
Although the Six Flags Corp. was acquitted of manslaughter charges in connection with the fire, the park's owners agreed to pay $3.7 million to the families of five of the victims, who sued the company for allegedly failing to inspect the attraction and to install fire alarms and sprinklers.
Nevertheless, industry experts say that theme park fatalities are a rarity.
American parks average 270 million visitors each year and report fewer than 5,000 injuries requiring treatment, according to the U.S. Product Safety Commission. Less than 2% of those injured are admitted to a hospital.
"If you look at the statistics, riding a roller coaster is safer than playing billiards and safer than using toothpicks," said Paul L. Ruben, North American editor of Park World magazine. An average of 1.5 Americans are killed on amusement park rides each year, although published reports range as high as three annually, he said.
"More incidents are reported on merry-go-rounds [than roller coasters] because no one's strapped in," he said.
"These things do happen occasionally," said Harrison Price, a San Pedro-based amusement park industry analyst. "But it's not a problem area at all."
Chu is a Times staff writer and Riccardi is a correspondent. Times staff writers David E. Brady, Jose Cardenas, Julie Tamaki and David Wharton contributed to this story.