Thrilled to Death

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

Sam won an out-of-court settlement against AstroWorld two years ago, and although the payout was confidential, court documents reveal it was in excess of a million dollars, probably making him the richest tenth-grader in the history of Lamar High School.

Even so, a few million dollars is barely a drop in the wavepool to AstroWorld. The park doesn't reveal its attendance figures or revenues, but the industry Web site estimates 1.7 million people visited last year. With standard ticket prices pushing above $40, the park easily could have grossed more than $700 million.

It's hard to know how AstroWorld spent the money, but most of it probably didn't go toward new roller coasters and better safety harnesses. According to an AstroWorld fansite, the park's newest coaster, the popular Serial Thriller, was built for only $10 million, most of which would have gone to its design and assembly. At those prices, not much would be left for detailed safety studies by the manufacturer.

Sam Nguyen's accident on the Mayan Mindbender left 
him with a scar from ear to ear.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Sam Nguyen's accident on the Mayan Mindbender left him with a scar from ear to ear.
The Mayan Mindbender
The Mayan Mindbender

Instead, the task of scrutinizing safety design has fallen to the U.S. government, which is conducting its first ever industry-wide analysis of amusement-ride restraints. A spokesperson for the Consumer Products Safety Commission declined to discuss preliminary results.

Sam wishes the government and AstroWorld had paid more attention to restraints before he rode the Mayan Mindbender. Instead of receiving money after the accident, he would have preferred to go to class like the rest of the students in middle school, without a wheelchair, scars and constant migraines. Regaining a normal life has been tough.

A stellar student in seventh-grade, Sam missed a semester after his accident and never caught up. Headaches sent him home at least once a week. He slipped into low-level classes and struggled to learn. His A's and B's turned to B's, D's and F's. And his headaches have carried over into high school. Teachers told him last month he could be expelled for missing too many days of class.

Bitterness sometimes gets the best of him. "I can't concentrate, I still have to take a lot of drugs, and I still feel like crap because of my headaches," he says. "I can't even run no more or play sports."

Sam's persistent woes have made it all the more difficult for him to believe AstroWorld keeps running the Mindbender without so much as a public admission of its real dangers. The park posts boilerplate signs dissuading people with heart and neck problems from the coaster, but Sam's attorney, Vujasinovic, suggests a more general caveat. It would say: "Warning: These T-bars are not meant to keep you in this ride, and if you sit up more than six inches on your seat, you could be thrown out."

Activists say the parks also need to post the signs at their entry gates so people can read them before they pay. "They do everything they can to make people drop their fears at the door so they get them in," Fackler says, "and then they screen them out later, like you get to the ride and all of a sudden there is a warning."

Sam's accident served as enough warning to all of his friends. None of them visits the park, though sometimes he hears about kids at Lamar who know about his accident but ride the coaster anyway. He wants the government to shut down the ride. "Roller coasters aren't as safe as you think," he says.

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Something tells me that Sam WAS jumping up and down on his last ride on that train, why would his attorney want a warning sign advising against patrons standing six inches above their seats posted if it weren't for Sam doing it himself? Then he wants the ride shut down for everyone because he did not follow the rules? I don't think so. How many other guests have been thrown from that coaster? None? Just as I thought! When riding a roller coaster it's never a good idea to stand up and jump, come on now!!

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