Thrilled to Death

Riders may get more than they bargained for when they head to amusement parks this summer

The Cyclone was modeled on the five eponymous originals built by Harry Traver in the 1920s -- at the time among the fastest and most dangerous coasters ever erected. The Crystal Beach Cyclone in Crystal Beach, Ontario, was so perilous it included a nurse's station specifically for patrons. Most of the coasters didn't last long, and by the 1970s the Coney Island Cyclone was the only one still spinning. AstroWorld set out to replicate its thrills but ended up surpassing them. "It's bigger and faster," says park spokesman Daryl Freedman. " 'Texas-style' is what we like to say."

Though erected at a park dedicated to rocket science, the Texas Cyclone was tested using more down-to-earth methods. Engineers placed watermelons and hams in the seats and ran the coaster to see if the food would fall out. The first humans to take the ride were doubtless terrified; the Cyclone still offers a huge dose of what coaster enthusiasts call "ejector airtime" -- the force that pulls riders out of their seats.

Not surprisingly, the initial safety tests were inadequate. Soon after the coaster opened, AstroWorld replaced the flimsy lap bars in the last car with seat belts. The belts eventually became standard in all cars, along with seat dividers. The coaster also received a new braking system.

All of those changes were firmly in place when Cesar Gonzalez boarded the Cyclone on his 16th birthday in 1984. Gonzalez rode the coaster three times, and on the fourth trip, his cousin noticed his body go limp. Doctors later determined he had ruptured a vein in his neck. The tear sent a blood clot to his brain and caused a stroke, leaving the left side of his body permanently paralyzed.

Gonzalez sued AstroWorld for damages, claiming the g-forces aboard the ride had caused his injury. His attorney, Howard Nations, hired Raymond Bradley, a NASA engineer who had designed space-shuttle seats to cushion astronauts on rocket rides. Bradley found AstroWorld hadn't exactly entered the space age; body support on the coaster was prehistoric.

The seat "immobilized the lower body," Nations said, "but allowed the upper body to twist in the wind. Especially as you go into a hard turn at the bottom of the ride, at that point, you are really just being thrown around."

Bradley estimated riders were so jostled on the last turn that their necks were exposed to forces approaching 28 g's -- more force than experienced by fighter pilots. Nations discovered close to 200 people had complained of injuries aboard the ride. After eight years of legal wrangling, the courts sided with Gonzalez and awarded him $2.5 million.

Revelations from the case led to major changes on the Cyclone, Nations says. Fiberglass trains replaced the steel versions, and bulky headrests obscured the ride's panoramic views. (For unknown reasons, the park also shaved six feet off the ride's first plunge in 1996.) Coaster fans were heartbroken.

"Those headrests were the worst thing that ever happened to that ride," Robinson says. "We used to call them telephone booths. They were big and clunky and you couldn't see anything."

Nations was impressed with AstroWorld's willingness to voluntarily alter the coaster in the face of criticism. "They are extremely safety-conscious," he says, "and I deal with a lot of defendants that really aren't. A lot of them will try to just pay you off and keep the product on the market."

Emphasizing its reputation for safety, the amusement-park industry has successfully battled over the past 25 years to exempt itself from government regulation. In 1981, the industry won an amendment to the Consumer Product Safety Act making all fixed-site amusement parks immune from federal control.

To this day, the parks remain stubbornly antiregulatory. "We doubt the federal government could do more to improve our already excellent safety record," says industry spokesperson Robertson.

U.S. Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, disagrees. He has been fighting for five years to get a hearing on a bill to revoke the exemption, but it's stalled in a committee chaired by a Republican from Orlando -- ground zero for the Walt Disney Company.

"My hope is the Republican Party will finally realize there will be more deaths and injuries unless they create a federal standard," Markey says. "We have federal standards for automobiles, for baby carriages, for safety caps on medicine, but not on rides that go 60 to 80 miles per hour that result in death and injury every summer."

Underscoring the case for federal control, Markey's office tabulated the amusement-park industry's safety record and compared it to that of the transportation industry. Based on 14 deaths from amusement-park rides between 1997 and 2000, it found roller coasters in that period were more dangerous than buses, trains and airplanes, which are all subject to national laws.

The only standard currently regulating AstroWorld rides is Texas law, but that's not saying much. Clerks in the Texas Department of Insurance are told to make sure the parks comply with a set of safety standards drawn up, for the most part, by the amusement-park industry. The clerks rely on private insurance agents to inspect each ride once a year and whenever an accident occurs. This means the only people who evaluate amusement-park accidents in Texas are people who work for companies that must pay for them if the parks are to blame. In other states, they call this a conflict of interest: "Their mission isn't to keep the public safe," says Markey's staffer David Moulton. "Their mission is to make sure their shareholders get returns for their business."

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