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By Craig Hlavaty
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Thrill seekers have a word for almost every moment aboard a roller coaster, and if they were to describe Sam Nguyen's position in the summer of 2001, they would say he was at the top of the lifthill. After all, Sam held a freshly minted season pass to Six Flags AstroWorld, and for a 13-year-old who thrived on the feel of his shoulders stapled into a harness, his stomach squashed into his throat and his head inverted, pleasure knew no better passport.
Sam became the most envied species of teen, the summer amusement-park rat. He strolled past the arching entry gate three times a week, boarded the Ultra Twister and churned through nine stories of drops and barrel rolls. Or he caught the Viper, a wild trip ending in a banked hammerhead so low and so sharp you could almost reach out of the car and pluck the grass.
Of course, when the lines backed up, Sam moved on. He hiked out late one July evening to an artfully crumbling corner of the Oriental Village, where a trail flanked by howling skulls and aggressive shrubbery led to the Mayan Mindbender. Rebuilt at AstroWorld in 1995, the coaster resembles Indiana Jones skiing Space Mountain: It caroms in total darkness inside a faux Mayan temple. Teens are delightfully horrified.
Sam rode four times back to back, and five minutes before closing time he found the typically massive line for the popular first car had vanished. He sat in the front; his friend John climbed in behind him and clutched his shirt. Restraint bars pressed against their laps, and the clacking lift pulled them above a sea of screams.
Three stories up, Sam raised his arms. The coaster dipped and jolted to the right, and his shirt was yanked out of John's hands. Sam was thrown from the car and sent flying. It felt like part of the ride. Until he crashed to the concrete and struggled to breathe, his face shattered and his throat choked with blood.
The next thing Sam remembers, he awoke to the prick of a surgeon sewing his eyelid shut. Every bone in his face had been broken. The fall splintered his hip, snapped his pelvis and fractured an ankle. A shard of bone lodged in his brain.
"I was like, 'How bad is it?' " Sam recalled when his parents arrived at Hermann Hospital. "I was really afraid because I thought I was blind."
It took him two months to open his eyes and another month to leave the hospital. He will never be able to run more than a short distance or play most sports, and he still bears a scar from ear to ear where surgeons peeled away his scalp and cheeks to reconstruct his face.
Sam's accident was clearly severe, but it was also less of a fluke than many AstroWorld visitors might expect. Hundreds of medical complications ranging from whiplash to torn organs have occurred at Houston amusement parks. And most galling to those injured, the parks could have taken obvious steps to prevent them.
Roller coasters, with their towering spires and twisting spindles of steel, are temples to speed, gravity and, perhaps most of all, danger. Long lines offer hours to mull over the perils: One could fall out of a loop, sever a neck on a low-slung "headchopper" effect or simply fly off the track. Far from a deterrent, waiting for one's dose of sweaty-palmed terror has become one of the great rituals of modern life. The swamps have been tamed and the West won, but there's always the Serpent and the Gunslinger.
The amusement parks know their patrons want to court calamity, embrace horror and stare death in the face, as long as nobody gets hurt. Which is why they trumpet the enhanced danger of each new ride, while reminding in a stage whisper that it's all a brilliant deception.
"When you compare the number of rides that are taken with the number of injuries that occur," says Beth Robertson, spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, "there is virtually no safer form of recreation."
According to one set of statistics, Robertson is right. About 300 million people visited fixed-site amusement parks in 2002 -- more than the population of the United States. Roughly 3,800 of those people were sent to the hospital. That's 13 people for every one million visitors, or about the same percentage of dorks injured in a given day playing Ping-Pong.
But critics say the story told by those numbers is about as clear as the water in AstroWorld's Lil' Buccaneer Bay -- which is suspiciously yellow. The Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates the injuries through a network of about 100 hospitals. Only one of those hospitals was near an amusement park. When that hospital quit the program in 2001 after intense lobbying by the parks, the number of reported injuries fell 10 percent. Change the hospitals, and the parks might not look so safe.
Of course, whatever one chooses to believe about the frequency of injuries, Robertson says, the accidents are clearly almost never caused by the parks. "One of the things we talk about is that guests really need to be our partners in safety," she says. "They need to read the signs and listen to the verbal commands given by the operators and follow the rules."
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