State investigators Tuesday blamed inadequate safety restraints for the death of a 40-year-old Duarte woman who flew out of a thrill ride at Knott's Berry Farm.
Lori Mason-Larez fell to her death from the Perilous Plunge water ride--billed as the world's steepest and highest flume ride--even though both her lap bar and seat belt were in place.
The 90-second ride carries as many as 24 passengers on a track up a hill, around a corner and down a 115-foot, 75-degree drop at speeds of up to 50 mph.
As a result of its six-month investigation, the Department of Occupational Safety and Health ordered a sweeping review and analysis of the Perilous Plunge and a new training program for park employees before it can reopen.
The agency said the Buena Park venue should either change its safety restraints or restrict the types of people who can ride. Mason-Larez weighed 292 pounds, which investigators said was a contributing factor in the Sept. 21 accident.
But in an interview, state officials said that even average-sized people could be at risk on the ride.
"We think they need to go over everything one more time," said Len Welsh, the state's special counsel for regulatory development.
"We're not convinced this is just an issue for a person larger than the average human being. We're not certain that it couldn't have happened to anybody."
Jack Falfas, general manager of Knott's Berry Farm, called the state report thorough and fair and pledged to do whatever it takes to make the ride safe.
"This company is going to make sure that we have a restraint system that is effective for everybody that is permitted on that ride," Falfas said.
"This death has affected myself along with the operators that work here.... This ride will not operate until it meets my standards. I won't do this again. I'm going to force the manufacturer to do what's acceptable, and I'm sure what's acceptable to me will be acceptable to the state."
Sandor Kernacs, president of Intamin Ltd., the company that designed and manufactured the Perilous Plunge, had not read the state findings Tuesday afternoon but defended the safety and design of the ride.
"That is the safest restraint system on any water ride anywhere in the world," said Kernacs, who said that if Mason-Larez had been holding on, she would not have fallen.
Relatives of Mason-Larez declined to comment Tuesday, but the family's Los Angeles attorney, Stephen Mancini, said the report reaffirms the family's position that the ride was unsafe and that Mason-Larez was not warned that her size could increase the danger.
Beyond the mechanical findings, Mancini said, the report also reinforces "just how tragic ... this loss really was."
The mother of five was visiting the park with her family. Her niece and several of her children were seated next to her on the ride when she flew out.
The state found that in addition to the ride's forces pulling Mason-Larez out of her seat, the position of the seat belt and lap belt and the size and weight of the victim all contributed to the accident.
In addition, investigators determined that:
* The seat belt was buckled and the lap bar was down, though they might not have been in an optimal position;
* Neither manufacturer Intamin nor Knott's had written instructions for ride operators handling passengers whose physical characteristics might threaten their safety;
* Even though it may not have made a difference in the accident, ride operators may not have complied with park procedures for checking lap bars; and
* Warning signs about the ride were placed in such a way that passengers might not see them.
A lawsuit filed against Knott's Berry Farm and Intamin is scheduled for trial in June.
The Perilous Plunge has an individual T-shaped lap bar, a seat belt and a separate bar for the passenger to hold, called a grab bar.
The warning signs tell passengers to hold onto the grab bar, and Intamin president Kernacs said that if Mason-Larez had been doing that, she would have been safe.
"If anybody holds onto the grab bar, they will not get out of the ride," Kernacs said.
The manufacturer's own publicity photos, however, picture screaming passengers with their hands in the air.
Some witnesses said Mason-Larez's hands were in the air, but investigators did not reach a definitive conclusion. There were no signs of rider misconduct, Welsh said.
But, he said, "it shouldn't matter. That ride needs to be designed so that you don't have to hold on."