By Joel Warner
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Jammed with a collection of rides that promise to make the traditional terrors of the old-fashioned roller coaster seem positively quaint, Six Flags Elitch Gardens, like many amusement parks these days, is on the cutting edge of engineering technology.
Since it was moved downtown and bought out by Premier Parks in 1996, the longtime Denver fun zone has been transformed from a genteel collection of wooden roller coasters, spinning teacups and flower gardens beloved by generations of Coloradans into a monstrous display of dizzying thrills.
Bold riders can plunge 200 feet straight down the Tower of Doom, which looks like a huge smokestack plopped in the middle of the Central Platte Valley; they can zoom through vertical loops at 50 miles per hour on the Boomerang; and they can sail over the valley on the XLR8R, "the highest free-fall swing in the world."
But the ride that's become one of the most popular in the park and promises the ultimate thrill, a gravity-defying body slam, has a name that seems to say it all: the Mind Eraser.
The $10 million red-and-turquoise steel roller coaster was introduced in 1997. Riders are harnessed into seats that leave their feet and legs dangling in mid-air and then blasted at speeds over 60 miles per hour through a series of rollovers, dives and double corkscrew spins that would make an astronaut dizzy. The ride lasts less than two minutes, and after being turned upside down and spun in circles, many of the Mind Eraser's mostly teenage fans are ready to go again.
In fact, the wait for the Mind Eraser is sometimes two hours long, and as soon as Elitch's opens its gates, a flock of eager teens races to be first in line. "It's the coolest ride in the park," says one blond fourteen-year-old boy from Arvada. "It will make you sick, but it's a blast."
Not everyone is so excited about the Mind Eraser, however. Deborah Lee Benagh says an ill-fated spin on the ride in 1997 led to serious medical problems for her, including a loss of memory, distorted vision, neck and back pain and an impairment of her day-to-day mental functioning so severe that she has been unable to work for two years.
"Elitch's is pushing the envelope with what the body can take," says the Denver woman. "That's why I'm upset with them."
Benagh is now suing Elitch's, and her action is part of a national trend, as park riders who say they have been injured on high-tech thrill rides turn to the courts for relief. Federal statistics show that more people are being injured every year on amusement rides, but park officials insist the new rides are safe; they say they're being targeted by attorneys and clients looking for a quick buck from a profitable industry.
Stephanie Goodell, spokeswoman for Elitch's, says the park has had few complaints about the Mind Eraser. "We've had a very positive response to that ride," she contends. "It's been very popular with our guests. We don't get a lot of complaints about any of our rides."
Most of the gripes about it involve those times when the ride is shut down for maintenance, she adds. As for the high-speed, high-voltage thrills of the Mind Eraser, she says the public wants rides that are even more daring. "We're meeting the demands of coaster thrill-seekers," she says. "They're looking for bigger and better and faster and taller."
However, documents filed in court as part of the lawsuit reveal that Benagh's experience may not be as unusual as Elitch officials claim. Safety logs that were submitted as evidence by Elitch's show that in the summer of 1997, six patrons of the Mind Eraser were transported to area hospitals via ambulance for neck and back injuries. Most of them were immobilized and treated with ice packs at the park to prevent any injury to the spine.
Three Mind Eraser riders were advised by Elitch employees to go to the hospital, and more than a dozen others sought treatment at the park's first aid station--located just twenty yards from the ride's exit--for injuries to the head, neck, back and shoulder. For the entire season, a total of 22 people reported being injured on the Mind Eraser. The court allowed Elitch's to withhold their names for privacy reasons.
Benagh's attorney spent months trying to obtain accident figures for the Mind Eraser's 1998 season. Elitch's fiercely resisted disclosing that information, arguing that it was irrelevant to the case, but was finally ordered to do so by the court. Those records show that ten people reported injuries to their neck, back, head or shoulder after riding the Mind Eraser last year; the number of people sent to the hospital was not disclosed.
The court also required Premier Parks to share its safety records for other Mind Eraser rides at parks it operates in Kentucky, New York and Massachusetts. Premier reported 41 injuries on the Mind Eraser over the past two years at Riverside Park in Massachusetts and 34 injuries at Kentucky Kingdom during the same period. Six Flags Darien Lake in Buffalo, New York, logged 20 neck injuries from the Mind Eraser during the past two summers.