Risky Rides?

generic picture of roller coaster, shown in the negative view
A roller coaster that hits top speeds of 85 miles an hour and includes a near-vertical drop was blamed Monday by officials for causing a brain hemorrhage that killed a 28-year-old woman.

The woman, Pearl Santos, died on Saturday from bleeding around the brain stem and a ruptured cerebral artery caused by the ride at the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park northwest of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Coroner's office said.

A Magic Mountain spokesman disputed the autopsy findings.

Santos was found slumped over unconscious when the three-minute Goliath ride finished on Saturday morning. Paramedics tried to resuscitate her and treated her for what appeared to be a heart attack, but she was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital shortly before noon, a Magic Mountain spokesman said.

The roller coaster, which is one of the tallest and fastest in the nation, has been open since February 2000 and features a near-vertical drop from a height of 255 feet.
The ride was closed briefly following the incident before state safety inspectors allowed it to re-open. It was shut down again on Sunday so that the inspectors could complete an on-site inspection, expected to conclude on Monday, Andy Gallardo, a spokesman for the park, said.

Magic Mountain rejected the explanation that the ride had caused Santos' death, saying that her aneurysm had been a pre-existing condition unrelated to the roller coaster.

Meanwhile, a federal report that says amusement park injuries have nearly doubled since 1996 is scary enough to shake the most fearless thrill seeker.

Amusement park operators, though, have serious doubts about the validity of the report and say there is no way that injuries are skyrocketing.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says its annual study released in August found there were about 7,260 rider injuries in 1999 at amusement parks with permanent rides. That's compared with 3,720 injuries in 1996. The report was based on injuries that sent people to hospital emergency rooms.

The report says there were 10,380 injuries in all at parks, fairs and carnivals in 1999.

"Thrill rides are supposed to give people the illusion of danger, not put them in danger," said Ann Brown, director of the commission.

The report, she said, gives more ammunition to those who want Congress to give the agency the authority to regulate and inspect rides at the nation's biggest theme parks.

A pending bill would restore that power, which Congress took away in 1981.

Brown said the timing of the report and the bill are not related.

"We have no ax to grind in this," she said. "We just want to protect people."

Amusement industry leaders say they have noticed no increase in injuries.

"The whole thing is kind of curious," said John Graff, president of International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

The number of injuries listed in the report is based on surveys aken at 100 hospitals across the nation.

Graff said the numbers are flawed because it's a small sample and researchers projected their overall numbers based on the 167 ride-related injuries they found at hospital emergency rooms.

The report's authors admit that the total number of injuries could be wrong by as many as 5,560.

"Even if the report is right, it still is an extraordinarily low number," Graff said. "We're still talking about one serious injury in 27 million rides."

He said that after a reported increase in injuries in 1995, an independent agency found that there was no increase -- only a change in accounting. Graff said the safety commission told his organization that there had been a change in the process of collecting data.

The commission, though, maintains it has not changed its counting method.

"We are able to confirm there is a trend," said spokesman Russ Rader. "Attendance rose less than 10 percent, and the injuries went up almost 100 percent."

The safety commission says it can't determine what's behind the increase because it has no regulatory power over amusement parks. It says it must rely on sample surveys from hospital emergency rooms and has no access to data from the parks. It does have authority over traveling fairs and carnivals.

Ride inspectors say they would be the first to know if accidents increased.

"I haven't noticed that," said Jim Barber, a ride inspector from New York. "It doesn't make sense that all of a sudden there's been this huge jump, unless they've changed the way they're counting."

He thinks the public would notice too.

"It's so unusual to have a serious accident that it is big news," said Barber, who is president of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.

During the 1990s, there were 21 rider deaths at amusement parks nationwide and seven at fairs and carnivals.

The states with the most ride-related deaths since 1987 are California and New Jersey with six. Ohio has had three rider fatalities during that period, according to the safety commission.

Blame for the accidents has fallen on riders, ride operators and mechanical failure.

Most accidents and injuries at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky are caused by riders who don't follow the rules, said Janice Witherow, a park spokeswoman.

Examples include a child falling off a railing in line, go-karts colliding, and people stumbling as they got off a ride, Abbott said.

The park, with more rides than any other in the nation, employs ride inspectors who work around-the-clock, Witherow said.

"The industry's goal is safety," she said. "Without an excellent safety record, there is no amusement industry."

In an interview with CBS News Early Show Anchor Bryant Gumbel, Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman Ann Brown argued that it's time to restore the CPSC's authority to investigate and enforce amusemnt park ride safety.

"I would think that the amusement park industry would want a federal presence helping them to do the kind of work they should be doing," said Brown. "If we find out about a ride or roller coaster that is hazardous, we (could) tell other parks about it...there can be a network. At this point, (the amusement park operators) don't tell us about anything. They don't have to."

Brown backs legislation introduced by Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Ed Markey, which would restore CPSC authority over amusement rides in fixed locations. Both Brown and Markey say state and local government inspections fall short of what really needs to be done.

"One third of the roller coasters in this country are never inspected by any public official, state or local, and none – not one – can be examined after an accident by a federal investigator," said Markey, in a statement.

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