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Patty Kravetz, a cosmetology teacher at Magnolia High School, took her class to AstroWorld at the end of the 2000 school year for a day of thrills. Thin, tanned and muscular, in her early forties, she happily followed her students aboard the park's most hair-raising adventures. And no ride musses teenage coiffures faster than the Dungeon Drop -- a tower that lifts passengers straight up and releases them in a 20-story freefall.
Kravetz's students towed her aboard the Dungeon Drop around 10:30 p.m. She was clamped into a shoulder harness, hoisted skyward with her legs dangling in the air and briefly afforded a stunning view of downtown. Then she plunged toward the ground so fast her legs lifted straight out. She hit 62 miles per hour in less than three seconds, giant magnets engaged, and the wrenching halt ripped a hole in her stomach. The fat of her stomach lining ejected through the opening and bulged into her navel.
Stepping out of the ride, Kravetz couldn't stand up straight without inducing severe pain. But she felt she had to watch over her school group, so she sat for another two hours on a park bench. Only the next day, after she started throwing up, did she go to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed her with an epigastric hernia and patched her with eight staples and 35 internal stitches.
"I've had a hysterectomy and I've had a daughter," she says, "and this was worse than either. It was ten times worse the pain."
The Dungeon Drop fall wasn't the first time Kravetz had suffered a hernia. The rip in her stomach occurred in the same place where surgeons had repaired a tear eight years earlier. Nevertheless, she sued AstroWorld to recover damages and to force the park to change the ride. Her doctors testified the tissue had been healthy when the rip occurred. And she said she had no way of knowing the ride could reopen healed wounds.
The tunnel leading to the Dungeon Drop is modeled on a medieval torture chamber, but AstroWorld says real injuries aboard the ride are nearly impossible. According to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, the most powerful amusement-park rides subject riders to four to six g's. Those forces are less than the jolt of hopping off a step or plopping into a low-backed office chair.
Even so, some doctors are skeptical. Howard Speth, a New Jersey pathologist and amusement-park safety consultant, documented 68 cases of injuries that appeared to be caused by roller coasters. In 2002, Representative Markey convened a blue ribbon panel through the Brain Injury Association of America and asked the members to analyze Speth's cases.
But the panel never examined the Speth data, claiming it wasn't collected in a uniform fashion. Instead, the researchers looked at published literature in the subject and concluded that "the overwhelming majority of riders will suffer no ill effects" and the most susceptible risk groups -- people with prior health problems -- "are already warned against riding."
The findings surprised some researchers, among them Faris Bandak, a neurology professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the former director of the head-injury research program at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Given the tissue strength of the blood vessels in the brain and given the pressure gradients they experience from roller coaster ride dynamics, the potential for injury is not unrealistic," Bandak says. "And those attributes that make us susceptible are not always associated with abnormality," he adds. "They are within what has been defined as normal for us."
For now, forces aboard most amusement rides don't come close to the voluntary limits set by the industry. "The limits are quite high," Moulton says, "so what that means from a public health perspective bears monitoring."
After two years of legal wrangling with AstroWorld, the park approached Kravetz with a proposal to settle. She was offered $12,000 on the condition that she abandon her demand that the park alter the Dungeon Drop. Kravetz accepted, and she has never returned.
"I thought, 'You've got this huge theme park, you know it's going to attract kids and families, and then you don't care about what happens to people on your rides?' I decided, 'You aren't getting my money anymore.' "
Of course, one lost customer is a small price to pay to keep the adrenaline junkies coming back. A young man with a red ponytail and a lip ring strapped himself into the Dungeon Drop last month with masochistic glee. Along with the Serial Thriller, it is his favorite ride. "It's totally awesome," he said. "It puts your stomach in your fucking throat."
Unlike most of his peers, Sam Nguyen now limits himself to the tamest hoists and pulleys, such as the elevator leading to his attorney's office on the 10th floor of the Binz Law Center. He was running a few minutes late for an appointment last month and walked in wheezing. Until an operation last year, he couldn't breathe through his nose at all. Now he gets by with a constricted nasal passage that makes him seem at times like an asthmatic in gym class.