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," said Intamin President Sandor Kernacs, adding that millions of people ride his and similar attractions each year without injury. In each accident, he said, the riders or operators should have been more responsible. But officials for the parks say they were following instructions from Intamin.
In light of the death 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."
The Intamin accidents occurred on different types of rides at different parks and using different restraints. But in each case, the rider fell out, either because he or she wasn't adequately restrained or the restraints didn't work, according to government investigation reports and 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 up to 50 mph, when she fell to her death. It has both a seat belt and a T-shaped lap bar, and both were found in 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. He 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 by ride operators. He said it would be "difficult, if not impossible" for the lap bar and seat belt to work on someone of her size.
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 Berry Farm and its 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," he said.
Mason-Larez's family members filed suit earlier this month against the park and Intamin. They have declined comment on the accident. Their suit alleges the ride is defective and no warnings were given. The family's attorneys also said ride operators were not vigilant in securing the 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 has a T-shaped lap bar but no added seat belt.
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 comment because of the 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. "He 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 from Sunnyvale, Calif., died in August 1999 in a fall from the Drop Zone Stunt Tower at Paramount's Great America amusement park in Santa Clara. The ride features a 22-foot free fall.
His family has filed a lawsuit against the park and Intamin, contending the shoulder harness was not in a locked position and the ride's design allows the ride 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 because the boy should have been better supervised. Park officials would not comment.
Once the Mason-Larez accident investigation is completed by the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health, Falfas said he will consider posting possible weight warnings if it helps prevent future injuries at Knott's.
"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 people at the edges, the risk rises considerably. [Mason-Larez] was under high risk and she didn't know it."