O.C. Fall Was Ride Maker’s Third Since ’99


In the 2 1/2 years before a woman fell to her death from the Perilous Plunge water attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm last month, at least two other people fell out of rides made by the same manufacturer, according to lawsuits and investigation reports.

In all three thrill-ride accidents, at parks in California and New York, the victims slipped free from shoulder harnesses, lap bars or seat belts. In two of the cases, the riders weighed about 300 pounds or more. In the third case, a 12-year-old mentally and physically disabled boy died after slipping from a roller-coaster car that free-falls 22 stories.

The manufacturer--Intamin AG, a worldwide company known for its cutting-edge roller coasters at parks such as Six Flags Magic Mountain and Disney’s California Adventure--has denied responsibility in all three cases. Company officials blame rider and operator error.


“Our rides are safe when people are responsible and follow the instructions,” Intamin President Sandor Kernacs said, adding that millions of people ride his and similar attractions each year without injury. In each accident, he said, the rider or operators should have been more responsible.

However, officials for the parks say they were following instructions from Intamin.

In light of the most recent death, that of a 40-year-old Duarte woman on Sept. 21 at Knott’s Berry Farm, lawyers and safety advocates believe both manufacturers and amusement parks need to take a closer look at establishing weight limits for their rides or warning heavy patrons that they might be at risk.

“When they put hundreds of thousands of people through the rides in a year, they have to anticipate that almost anything that can take place will take place. And they have to plan for it,” said David A. Dodge, a Maine-based independent safety consultant and former amusement-ride accident investigator.

“If we are relying on the mental or physical capability of a rider to retain [him- or herself] in the ride, then we’re putting the burden on the wrong person.”

Rides should be designed to withstand “all foreseeable circumstances--to include unconsciousness, wiggling and obesity,” Dodge said.

The three Intamin accidents occurred on different types of rides at different amusement parks and involved different restraints. But in each case, the rider fell out, because either he or she wasn’t adequately restrained or the restraints didn’t work, according to government investigation reports or lawyers for the victims.


On Sept. 21, Lori Mason-Larez was riding Perilous Plunge, billed as the world’s steepest and highest flume water ride, with a 115-foot drop at speeds of up to 50 mph, when she fell to her death. The ride has both seat belts and T-shaped lap bars, and both of Mason-Larez’s were found in the locked position after the fall, said Knott’s General Manager Jack Falfas.

Kernacs said the ride is equipped with a third restraint--a grab bar--and Mason-Larez would have been safe if she had been holding on.

Kernacs said Mason-Larez--who weighed 292 pounds and had a girth of 56 inches, according to a coroner’s report--should not have been allowed on the ride by operators. He said it would be “difficult, if not impossible,” for the lap bar and seat belt to work on someone of her size.

Most Rides Designed for 175-Pound Person

Intamin’s rides are designed for a person weighing an average of 175 pounds, as are most amusement park attractions, Kernacs said.

Perilous Plunge does not have any posted weight restrictions. But Kernacs said there is a general warning in the manufacturer’s manual that only people who can be safely restrained should get on the ride.

Falfas defended Knott’s and his employees, saying they followed all the rules.

“The lady was allowed to ride the ride by the instructions that we were given by the manufacturer,” Falfas said.


Mason-Larez’s family members filed suit this month against both the park and Intamin. They have declined to comment on the accident. Their suit alleges that the ride is defective and that no warnings were given. The family’s attorneys also said ride operators were not vigilant in securing Mason-Larez’s seat belt and lap bar. Attorney Stephen Mancini said the woman’s daughter had to help fasten the seat belt because “nobody else at Knott’s was overseeing whether it was buckled.”

In May 1999 a similar accident occurred on Superman: Ride of Steel, an Intamin roller coaster at Six Flags Darien Lakes in New York. Michael Dwaileebe, 37, of Olean, N.Y., suffered rib fractures and internal injuries when he fell about eight feet from the ride, which was equipped with T-shaped lap bars but no seat belts.

Dwaileebe, who weighed more than 300 pounds, “came out of that ride like a cork out of a champagne bottle,” said his attorney, Francis M. Letro, who has filed a $5-million lawsuit against Intamin and Six Flags. Both Intamin and park officials have denied responsibility. Dwaileebe could not be reached for comment.

New York state inspectors from the Division of Safety and Health ordered the park to restrict the size of passengers allowed on that ride and to add seat belts as a second form of restraint. Park officials declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit but made the safety changes before reopening the ride.

Again, although there was no posted weight warning other than that passengers must be fully enclosed in the ride, Kernacs blamed the ride operator, not the design.

Dwaileebe “should not have ridden the ride because he was too obese,” he said. “The operator should not have allowed it.”


In the third accident, Joshua Smurphat, a mentally disabled 12-year-old, died in August 1999 in a fall from the Drop Zone Stunt Tower at Paramount’s Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, Calif. The ride features a 22-story free fall.

The Sunnyvale boy’s family has filed a lawsuit against the park and Intamin, contending that the shoulder harness was not in a locked position and that the ride’s design allows it to start even if the restraints aren’t secured. Depositions were being taken this week in that case, and a trial is pending. Both the company and the park have denied responsibility.

An investigation by Santa Clara police concluded that no charges should be filed against the park, which has since added a safety belt to the shoulder harness. Kernacs blamed rider error, saying Smurphat should have been better supervised. Park officials would not comment on the lawsuit.

More than 10 years ago, there was a problem on another Intamin ride. In June 1991 Candy Taylor, 32, a widowed mother of two, died after falling from the Flight Commander, a simulated airplane flight, at Paramount’s Kings Island amusement park in Ohio. The ride has since been shut down. An investigation by the Ohio Department of Agriculture blamed flawed design.

Taylor’s family attorney, George Rogers, said that a “very good” out-of-court settlement was reached with both the park and Intamin, but the exact terms are confidential. Park officials, in a written statement, declined to comment on that accident.

Kernacs, however, maintains that Taylor was intoxicated and not riding responsibly.

Although investigators acknowledged that her intoxication may have played a role, the report stated: “No matter what physical or mental state the victim was in, the restraints should have been sufficient to keep her in her seat until the conclusion of the ride.”


Riders Need Warning of Risks, Advocates Say

Attorneys and safety consultants say that ride designers should either anticipate such problems or restrict access.

“It’s the responsibility of the industry to look out for those who can’t--or won’t--look out for themselves,” said Ed Pribonic, an independent ride inspector.

Mancini, the Mason-Larez attorney, said that if manufacturers are aware of risks to heavy people, riders should be informed. And Pribonic suggested that parks consider placing a sample restraint system or seat in ride lines so that passengers can determine beforehand if they will fit safely.

Once the Mason-Larez accident investigation is completed by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Falfas said, he will consider taking action--including posting weight warnings--if it helps prevent future injuries.

“We need to get the information out on the table,” said park safety advocate Kathy Fackler of La Jolla, founder of SaferParks.

“For that 175-pound guy that they’re designing rides for, the risk is very low. For the 4-year-olds, the 5-year-olds and the 300-pound women, for the people at the edges, the risk rises considerably. [Mason-Larez] was under high risk, and she didn’t know it.”