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If Sam had followed the rules aboard the Mayan Mindbender, he wouldn't have fallen off, AstroWorld says. As he lay facedown in a pool of blood on the concrete below the track, an AstroWorld supervisor, Diedra Wuenschel, squatted next to him and began asking questions. Wuenschel later quoted Sam in a statement as saying, "I was jumping up and down on my seat."
After Sam's father sued to reclaim his son's medical bills, the jumping comment became the core of AstroWorld's defense. The park even created a computer-animated video showing Sam standing on the coaster and being jettisoned at the first turn. But Sam denied ever standing up or jumping. And his attorney, Vuk Vujasinovic, argued the teenager could have flown out even while sitting down.
Manufactured by the Vekoma company in Germany, the 12 cars of the Mayan Mindbender trains use a common type of restraint known as the T-bar. The bar telescopes out from the floor and pivots down against riders' laps. It locks into position when the teeth of two sets of ratchets inside the car clamp together.
Reviewing the maintenance log for the Mayan Mindbender, Vujasinovic found a surprisingly fresh record of problems with the lap bars. For example, one week before the accident, an AstroWorld mechanic wrote, "need parts for lap bars ratchet assembly." Two days later, a mechanic determined that cars three, five and ten had "bad ratchets." And three days before the accident, AstroWorld shut down the entire coaster due to "inop. lap bars."
Vujasinovic also found surprising holes in the park's maintenance procedures, casting further doubt on whether the lap bars were working properly before Sam fell out. The user's manual for the Mindbender requires the locking teeth of the restraint bars to be replaced "if more than 20 percent of the tooth height is worn off." But the ride's mechanic was unaware of the requirements, which were also absent from the park's maintenance guidelines. Vujasinovic's ride expert, former Walt Disney senior facility design manager Edward Pribonic, was aghast. "There was no inspection I would consider anywhere near proper on that lap bar," he said, adding that the maintenance of the Mindbender was the poorest he'd ever seen.
Even so, the strongest piece of evidence against AstroWorld came from the park itself. Two months after the accident, ride mechanic Tony Solis inspected Sam's Mindbender car and determined the lap bar had "an intermittent locking malfunction." Solis later explained in a deposition that this meant "the teeth in the ratchet weren't locking right." It was basically an admission: The lap bar could have come undone during a ride.
In a second line of defense, AstroWorld argued that the lap bars scarcely mattered. Park supervisor Wuenschel said the purpose of the braces was simply "to remind guests to stay seated while riding the ride." But the manufacturer's specifications for the coaster tell a slightly different story. They say the braces "hold" passengers and "serve to keep [them] seated during the ride."
Given AstroWorld's laid-back stance toward the Mindbender restraints, riders might expect the park to claim that flying from the coaster is impossible in any case where a passenger is even remotely sitting down. But in fact, in one of the last depositions from the case, park engineer Ed Fritsch said Sam could have fallen out of the coaster if his rear end was just six inches off the seat.
Vujasinovic was shocked. "I don't think anyone would expect that," he said, adding that any number of scenarios could cause riders to fall out under those conditions. "Let's say a rider is trying to move back in their seat and they want to pick their rear end up to move back, or let's say a kid is excited about being on the ride and they put their hands up and lift a little bit," he said. "These are things that you see all the time."
How to hold a person inside a roller coaster has been a vexing concern for generations of mechanical engineers. The architects of America's first coaster ride were among the few ride designers to avoid the problem: Their Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway topped out at six miles per hour. But 120 years after the ride opened on Coney Island, speeds aboard coasters have increased more than tenfold, and engineers still haven't figured out how to keep their machines reliably attached to patrons.
The perennial restraint problem surfaced most recently at the Six Flags New England amusement park in Agawam, Massachusetts, where last month Stanley Mobarsky boarded the Superman Ride of Steel. Mobarsky was clamped in with a T-bar -- the same mode of restraint used aboard the Mayan Mindbender -- then hoisted up with an eight-car train.
Voted the best roller coaster in the world when it was built in 2000, the Ride of Steel plunged Mobarsky down an 80-mile-per-hour descent, bumped him over several high-speed camel humps, and in the last turn threw him out of the car. Eyewitnesses said his body spun like a Frisbee, hit the rail and fell to the ground. He was pronounced dead a few minutes later.
Compared to other riders aboard the coaster, Mobarsky had been a prime candidate for ejection. He was five feet two inches, 230 pounds and confined to an electric scooter. His family said he should have never been allowed aboard the ride. Using a T-bar to hold such a man would have been like restraining a cantaloupe with a chopstick.