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Disneyland Rider Dies in Roller Coaster Accident

Times Staff Writers

One man died and 10 other riders were hurt Friday when train cars filled with passengers broke loose from a locomotive in a dark tunnel on Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction.

The accident occurred about 11:20 a.m. after the lead car, decorated to resemble a small red engine, and the open-top passenger cars sped through the faux desert landscape and uphill into a tunnel, where the cars separated and the locomotive derailed.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 07, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
Disneyland accident -- An article on the front page Saturday incorrectly quoted authorities as saying some of those injured on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Friday were trapped in the train’s wreckage for as long as an hour before Anaheim rescue workers could get them out. The ambulance transporting the last victim to the hospital departed Disneyland 59 minutes after firefighters and paramedics arrived at the scene, but a city spokesman said all of the injured had been evacuated from the tunnel where the accident occurred in about 20 minutes.

Moments after the accident, riders clambered from the cars and agitated park guests ran out, calling for help. “Someone is hurt bad. It’s really serious. Get someone up here,” cried two young men running from the site of the accident, said John and Laurie Whims of Seattle, who were waiting at the head of the line to take the next train.

Authorities said passengers were trapped in the cavern for up to an hour before Anaheim firefighters and paramedics could get them out. Frontierland was quickly sealed off and park employees in coonskin caps politely kept guests from entering the area.

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Authorities identified the dead man as Marcelo Torres, 22, of Gardena. Emergency workers said they had to extricate him from the front passenger car. Ten other riders, ranging in age from 9 to 47, were treated for moderate to minor injuries at hospitals.

Among the most severely hurt was Vicente Gutierrez, a 22-year-old Wilmington man who suffered facial cuts and chest injuries, including possible broken ribs. He was listed in serious condition at UCI Medical Center, said Marcida Dodson, a hospital spokeswoman.

The death, the 10th since the park opened in 1955, was the first fatality at the Anaheim theme park since 1998, when a cleat tore loose from the Columbia sailing ship and struck a visitor in the head. Friday’s incident is the second serious accident on Big Thunder Mountain since 1998, when a 5-year-old boy was badly hurt stepping off the ride. His foot was crushed against the curb when the train lurched forward.

“We are shocked and saddened by this,” said Cynthia Harriss, president of the Disneyland Resort. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of the victim and all the people who were injured.”

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Later in the day, Michael Eisner, chief executive of Walt Disney Co., attended a news conference at the park to express his condolences to the victims’ families.

“For the last 50 years, the safety and well-being of our theme park, our guests and our employees has been and continues to be our top priority,” he said. Eisner and company officials declined to comment in detail, saying Anaheim police and the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health are investigating the incident. They said the ride would remain closed until the inquiries are completed.

The popular roller-coaster style attraction, which opened in 1979, is based on the idea of a runaway mine train that speeds through caverns, mineshafts and red rock buttes. The trains, which can carry 32 people, are usually made up of five cars and a small engine.

John Nicoletti, a spokesman for Anaheim, said the passenger cars broke free of the locomotive, which was found derailed at the top of an incline. The cars were at the bottom of the grade, about 20 to 30 feet from the engine.

Officials were not certain Friday how many cars were involved in the accident or how many passengers were aboard the train. Nicoletti said some of the riders fled on their own from the tunnel.

Emergency crews set up a staging and treatment area near the River Belle Terrace, a restaurant not far from the entrance to Big Thunder Mountain.

The scene was chaotic, officials said, as riders ran from the train and called out for help to bewildered park patrons.

Kathy Crooks and Dolores Burlie, visitors from Denver, said they heard a loud snap and later saw park workers and firefighters running and then people being carried away on stretchers.

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“If we had been in the line five to 10 minutes earlier, that would have been us,” Burlie said. Two of the injured were treated at the scene. The other eight were taken to hospitals. They included Debra Guerrero, 44, of San Diego, who suffered possible broken ribs. Her 15-year-old son, Christopher, and her 9-year old nephew, Adrian, sustained cuts and bruises.

The first units from the Anaheim Fire Department reached the park within a few minutes of the accident. Eventually, 49 firefighters, four engines and six ambulances rolled to the scene, officials said.

Rescuers initially put in a frantic call for mechanical jaws that are used to extract injured people pinned in the wreckage of automobiles. They also called for portable lights and ventilators.

They soon canceled the call for the mechanical jaws, and instead requested equipment to stabilize the cars, which were in a precarious position inside the tunnel. Officials said it took more than an hour to remove injured riders and get them to ambulances.

After the Columbia incident in 1998, the state passed legislation requiring amusement parks to report accidents to the Department of Occupational Safety and Health, which can order safety changes.

Several accidents were reported in 2000 when the law went into effect, including an incident in which nine people were injured when a wheel apparently malfunctioned on the Space Mountain ride.

Later that year, a 4-year-old boy suffered irreparable brain damage when he fell out of a car on the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin and was pinned underneath the ride.

Experts say it is too early to know whether the new law is making amusement parks safer.

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The law “has had an impact on park operation for sure,” said David Koenig, who has written several books about the company and its theme parks. “Disney has more hoops and requirements it has to go through, but whether it translates to safety, I don’t know.”

Times staff writers David Reyes, Janet Wilson, Kimi Yoshino, Claire Luna, Hector Becerra, Dan Weikel, Scott Martelle, Ray Herndon, Daryl Strickland and Deborah Schoch contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Accidents Since 1997

Following are some recent accidents at Disneyland:

May 4, 2001 -- A falling tree injures 20 people, none seriously, in Frontierland.

Dec. 21, 2000 -- A 15-year-old boy on the “Alice in Wonderland” ride suffers broken bones when his dangling leg is pinched against a guardrail.

Oct. 28, 2000 -- A 40-year-old woman suffers minor injuries when her car on the Autopia attraction is rear-ended.

Sept. 23, 2000 -- A 4-year-old boy suffers severe brain damage after he falls out of the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin and is pinned beneath a car. The family later settles a lawsuit against the park for an undisclosed amount.

July 31, 2000 -- Nine people suffer minor injuries when a wheel apparently malfunctions on the Space Mountain roller coaster, jarring the cars to a stop.

April 18, 2000 -- A 13-year-old Lake Forest girl injures her leg when it is caught beneath a car on the Roger Rabbit ride.

Dec. 24, 1998 -- A man is killed and two people -- his wife and a park employee -- are seriously injured when a metal cleat used to moor the sailing ship Columbia comes loose and strikes them. Investigators later conclude the employee had not been properly trained. The family of the dead man later settles a lawsuit against Disney.

March 1998 -- A 5-year-old boy’s foot is mangled in the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride when the train lurches forward as the boy tries to exit the car.

May 17, 1997 -- A double-deck boat tips over at the Rivers of America ride, injuring several people, none seriously.


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