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Roller Coaster Worker Broke Rule, Officials Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 25-year-old roller coaster attendant who was battered to death by moving cars at Six Flags Magic Mountain was apparently violating one safety practice while trying to obey another, park executives said Friday.

Cherie La Motte of Valencia broke one of the park’s fundamental safety rules: Never set foot on the tracks in front of a roller coaster train, officials said. She did it while switching positions with co-workers, a practice meant to combat the boredom of working in one place and increase alertness, the executives said.

La Motte, assigned to the Revolution coaster, was scheduled to shift from the passenger unloading platform to the loading platform at 3 p.m. Thursday when she attempted to hurry across the tracks.

A six-ton, five-car train, filled with passengers at the end of their ride, entered the station at about 4 mph and knocked La Motte into a shallow pit between the tracks, where she was found dead of massive injuries.

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As state investigators Friday probed the death, Six Flags executives said they remained mystified as to why an experienced employee who had worked at the park for four summers would not have waited until the train pulled to a stop, when she could have crossed through or behind the cars.

The incident occurred in plain view of the train’s passengers, lines of waiting riders and five other employees who were helpless to stop the oncoming cars.

It was the first death of an employee in the park’s 25-year history, executives said.

Two patrons were killed at the park in 1978 when it was operating under different ownership.

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A rider on another roller coaster, the Colossus, fell out of a car that year in an accident that investigators said may have happened because of her weight, which they speculated created a problem with the safety bar. And a 23-year-old man was killed and his bride of a few hours was seriously injured in a 40-foot fall from the Eagle’s Flight ride.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has ruled La Motte’s death accidental, but an investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is continuing.

The practice of having employees frequently switch positions, either within a ride or from one attraction to another, has been credited with improving safety industrywide, theme park experts said.

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They said amusement parks usually do not cut corners in training their employees because one or two accidents can quickly harm a park’s reputation.

Such fear seems to have translated into relatively safe working conditions. The state Department of Industrial Relations places theme parks in the same risk category as golf courses and bowling alleys.

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Although there appear to be no nationwide statistics available on employee injuries at theme parks, experts said similar conditions exist nationwide despite the fact that the industry relies on young employees often hired only for the summer.

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At Southern California parks, employee fatalities have been few.

In 1986, a Universal Studios worker whose job was to jump out and scare tram passengers during a “Halloween Horror Night” was run over by the tram and dragged 100 feet to his death.

Three years earlier, at the now-closed Lion Country Safari, the chief zoologist was crushed by an elephant that broke free from its chain. In 1974, an employee was crushed between the moving walls of Disneyland’s America Sings attraction.

Although Magic Mountain’s attendance suffered after the 1978 roller coaster death, Price predicted no lasting effect from Thursday’s accident.

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The park opened as usual Friday. The Revolution, however, will remain closed until the conclusion of the state investigation and La Motte’s funeral, park spokeswoman Bonnie Rabjohn said.

La Motte was the daughter of Richard La Motte, a movie costume designer whose credits include “Rambo III,” “Hanoi Hilton” and “The Wind and the Lion.” Her mother, Patricia, is a real estate agent.

La Motte went to Valencia public schools and attended the College of the Canyons off and on for five years, studying to be a physical therapist.

Longtime friends and neighbors described her as sweet and shy. “She was the one who, if there was a lost pet lying on the ground, would give it food and water,” said Alan Neibauer, 32, who grew up in a house across the street from the La Motte family.

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La Motte had worked her way up at Magic Mountain from salesclerk to certified ride operator. Her training included classroom lectures, on-the-job instruction and a written test, park executives said.

She began as a ride operator in March, learning the ropes on the park’s relatively placid carousel and the Orient Express trolley. Last month, she was promoted to the Revolution.


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