By Alan Prendergast
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By Melanie Asmar
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.
Benagh believes that many visitors to Elitch's assume that no one ever gets injured on the rides, and she says she wants the public to know that things can go badly wrong. "I think people would be shocked to see what a totally unregulated industry this is," she says. "With these high-tech thrill rides, safety needs to be addressed."
Since Benagh and her two sons visited Elitch's on a warm July night in 1997, her life has been turned upside down. For fifteen years she was a sales associate for Merrill Lynch, but she hasn't worked since the accident. She's been living on disability benefits and has spent most of her time seeing doctors and attending multiple therapy programs.
She remembers the night she set out for an evening of innocent fun with her children. Her two boys--then ages twelve and nine--begged her to accompany them on the Mind Eraser. "They wanted me to go," says Benagh. "They wanted to see me scream."
But according to Benagh, during the ride, she hit her head several times against the back of her seat and blacked out for a few seconds. She remembers feeling nauseous and disoriented when she stepped off of the Mind Eraser. "I felt like I'd been hit by a two-by-four," she recalls, "but I got up and walked away."
Her problems worsened in the following weeks. Besides neck and back pain, one of her eyes started bleeding and she had difficulty focusing her vision. She also had a hard time remembering things.
"I could hang up the phone and not have an inkling who I had talked to," she says. "When you first have a head injury, you're like a dish rag--you can hardly function. When I'd go to a restaurant and they'd give me change, I couldn't add it up. When I answered the phone, my speech was slurred, and I was afraid to drive. Then I knew something was wrong."
Benagh says she waited several months, until she was sure she had a serious head injury, before contacting Elitch's to tell them she had been injured on the ride. The employee who took her complaint claimed to be surprised. "She told me she hadn't heard of anybody else getting hurt on that ride," remembers Benagh.
After Benagh filed an insurance claim against Elitch's, the park investigated and told her they thought her injuries were the result of a pre-existing condition--a deviated septum, says Benagh.
"That really pissed me off," she adds. "That's when I saw an attorney."
No one really knows how many people are injured at amusement parks every year. Federal officials estimate that 8,700 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in 1997 for injuries sustained on amusement rides. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which compiles the statistics from an annual survey of dozens of hospitals across the country, also estimates that 36 people were killed on amusement rides at carnivals and parks between 1987 and 1998 and that 34 people died on roller coasters alone between 1973 and 1997.
Since more than 270 million people visit American amusement parks each year--including 1.5 million visitors to Elitch Gardens--the chance of being hurt is small.
The CPSC says it isn't able to determine the percentage of people being injured on the new, high-intensity amusement rides from the information it gathers. "The only source for that kind of exposure data would be the industry," says Ken Giles, spokesman for the agency.
However, the CPSC data makes it clear that the overall rate of injury from amusement rides has increased in recent years. In 1994 the agency estimated 7,400 injuries; in 1995 it was 7,700; and in 1996 it estimated there were 8,600 injuries. By 1997, the number had increased by 18 percent over just three years earlier, to 8,700.
Because there are no federal or state standards on acceptable levels of risk in amusement rides, there is evidence that some parks make that determination based on the number of insurance claims or lawsuits they receive from patrons. If they get a lot of claims for one ride, they may decide to slow it down or close it altogether.
Earlier this month, Disneyland settled out of court with a California woman who sued the park claiming that a ride on the Indiana Jones Adventure triggered a brain hemorrhage. That ride, which opened in 1995, puts visitors into twelve-passenger "jeeps" that simulate an off-road trip with sharp turns and sudden drops. The ride has 160,000 possible combinations of twists and turns, which are randomly selected by a computer.
As part of that lawsuit, Disney was forced to disclose its safety records on the ride. The documents revealed that hundreds of people had reported being injured on the Indiana Jones Adventure; maladies ranged from broken teeth to bruises. The documents also showed that Disneyland designers tracked complaints and injuries on the ride and modified the attraction in response to the reports.
Disneyland's attorneys fiercely resisted having to disclose the safety information in court. Similarly, Elitch's lawyers told Denver District Court Judge Michael Mullins that the safety records from the Mind Eraser's 1998 season do not pertain to Benagh's complaint and are part of a "fishing expedition" by her attorney. The park's lawyers have also insisted that most of the information released to the court must be withheld from the public through a confidentiality order.
Benagh's lawsuit claims that Elitch's is liable for her injuries because the park offered a ride "that was dangerous in its design and operation" and it failed to warn patrons that others had been injured on the ride in the past. The suit asserts that Benagh's injuries were caused by the ride's plastic headrest and an ill-fitting shoulder harness and asks for damages due to negligence. Elitch's is being asked to cover Benagh's lost earnings and medical expenses as well as damages for her physical and emotional suffering and loss of memory and cognitive abilities. Under Colorado law, damages for negligence are capped at $366,000.
Elitch spokeswoman Goodell says she can't comment on Benagh's lawsuit because it's still in litigation, but in the court documents, Elitch's argues that because Benagh has never claimed that the ride malfunctioned, or was incorrectly operated or maintained, the park should not be held negligent. The manufacturer of the ride, Vekoma International, would be responsible for any design flaws, argues a brief submitted by Elitch's attorney Jack Robinson. There are thirty Mind Erasers around the world, including seven owned by Premier, according to court documents.
The park also notes that Benagh had the opportunity to observe the ride while waiting in line for 45 minutes. "Plaintiff personally observed the general nature and operation of the Mind Eraser ride, including: the relative speed of the ride; that the ride would turn her upside down on a number of occasions; that she would be spinning around; and that her legs were going to be free."
Elitch's faults Benagh for "her admitted failure to hold on during the course of the ride and her failure to keep her head firmly against the back of the seat."
In asking the court to dismiss the case, Elitch's says that Benagh "was exposed to the same conditions, the same forces, and the same restraint system as tens of thousands of other patrons who experienced no ill effects from the operation of the Mind Eraser." The park also notes that signs at the entrance to the ride warn patrons not to ride if they have back and neck problems, high blood pressure, a heart condition, or are pregnant. Benagh says she did not have any of these conditions.
Benagh insists that she is not simply out to make a buck. She hopes to receive permission from her doctor to return to work soon and notes that Colorado's limits on liability awards will prevent her from reaping a windfall even if she prevails in court. Her most severe symptoms have now passed, but she wants Elitch's to pay for her physical and mental ordeal during the past two years. At one time, Benagh says she was seeing five different doctors, including a neurologist, a physical therapist and an osteopath. "It's not like I'm asking for more than I lost," she says. "It's taken me fifteen months to get physically stabilized. It's taken two years from me and my kids."
She has also been startled to discover that the amusement-park industry receives little government oversight. "What scares me is that this could happen to other people and even to kids," says Benagh. "I know a lot of people are getting hurt on that ride. If I could change anything, I would have the state take a more active role to make sure they're operating at the highest level."
The safety of amusement rides has become an issue in other parts of the country, usually following fatal accidents.
In March, a young woman was killed and ten people were injured at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park in Dallas when a raft ride overturned. Six Flags employees told bystanders to wait for paramedics before trying to get the victims out of the water, and some patrons criticized the park for botching the rescue effort. The collapse of a slide in 1997 at Waterworld USA in Concord, California, led to the death of a high school girl and injured 32 of her classmates. The accident has resulted in a flurry of lawsuits against the park--which is also owned by Premier.
After a Texas girl was killed and two others seriously injured last year when they were ejected from a carnival ride known as the Himalaya, the CPSC issued a national alert to amusement ride operators and conducted an investigation. The agency found that several other people around the country had been injured on the ride because of a faulty safety bar. (Just last week, a New York girl was killed and eight others injured when a Himalaya ride malfunctioned at Coney Island.) The CPSC said it would work with the manufacturer to alert operators about potential problems; however, the commission has no authority to actually inspect rides or oversee maintenance. Decisions about how to regulate amusement parks and carnivals are left up to the states.
Colorado only mandates state inspections for traveling carnival rides. Amusement parks are simply required to maintain at least $1 million in liability insurance coverage. The insurance companies have to report all claims filed by patrons against amusement parks to the state labor department. Those records show 47 liability claims were filed against Elitch Gardens in 1998, and 54 claims in 1997. The claims covered everything from slips on sidewalks to a cervical spine injury. (A smaller number of claims were filed against Lakeside Amusement Park, probably because that park attracts fewer patrons.)
State senator Pat Pascoe of Denver says she can't remember amusement-park inspections ever being an issue in the state legislature. She says that by requiring liability coverage, lawmakers thought the insurance carriers would enforce basic safety standards. "If they have to carry insurance, you assume the insurance companies are interested in maintenance," Pascoe says.
Liability is a powerful motivator for safety, asserts the president of a national organization of amusement safety inspectors. "Amusement parks are not in the business to hurt people," says Carl Kimble, president of the Council for Amusement and Recreational Equipment Safety. "They can't stand the bad publicity or the insurance rates. If too many people are getting hurt, the insurance company may yank their insurance."
As for Elitch's, Goodell says that the park maintains a rigorous maintenance program and is fully committed to safety. "We inspect the rides every day," says Goodell. "It takes several hours every morning."
Despite its best efforts, Goodell says there is little the park can do when riders ignore warning signs. "If someone has a back problem, that's not something we can tell by looking at them," she adds. "We'd have to give each guest a physical exam before they get on, and that's not feasible."
The 1995 debut of Elitch Gardens' $75 million downtown location didn't go over well with the public. Many people missed Elitch's 104-year-old northwest Denver home, with its towering cottonwoods and storied attractions. The new Elitch's was too hot, too barren, too generic and too expensive, complained many visitors.
Elitch's longtime owners, the Gurtler family, had grown frustrated with the lack of space for expansion at the old site. The family publicly toyed with the idea of moving to the suburbs, a prospect that horrified city officials. Denver saw the amusement park as an ideal tenant for the dusty former railyards that made up the Central Platte Valley, and the city used public funds to try to entice Elitch's to move downtown.
City voters approved $14 million in bond funding to create the roads and floodplain improvements that made the move possible. Additionally, the city gave Elitch's a $7 million economic development loan, as well as an $8.5 million subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. But the Gurtlers sold the seventy-acre park to Premier for $62.5 million in late 1996. Attendance had been disappointing, and the family was reportedly unable to raise the funds necessary to buy the expensive high-tech attractions--like the Mind Eraser--that draw free-spending teenagers.
Since then, Oklahoma City-based Premier has sunk more than $30 million into the newly christened Six Flags Elitch Gardens. New this season is the $5 million Boomerang roller coaster, a set of steel loops that shoots riders forward, backward and upside down.
Premier has become a major player in the amusement-park world and now owns 31 parks in the United States and Europe. It bought the twelve Six Flags theme parks last year for $1.86 billion. The company hopes to make its name as well-known as Disney and purchased the right to use Warner Bros.' famous Looney Tunes characters and Batman and Robin as mascots. Bugs Bunny, Tweety, Sylvester and the rest of the gang now seem to be everywhere at Elitch's, and the well-stocked gift shop has a huge assortment of Warner Bros. knickknacks.
All of this promotion has paid off. Attendance has soared, going from 900,000 in 1995 to 1.5 million last year. Premier executives have said they hope to hit 1.6 million visitors this summer and that they plan to market Elitch's to residents of adjacent states.
Much of the resurgent popularity of the park can be attributed to the Mind Eraser and the other new rides. The new coasters are heavily promoted in television advertising, which is largely directed at teenagers.
Some believe Premier will be more aggressive in fending off lawsuits than the Gurtlers were. A review of lawsuits against the park over the last decade shows that Elitch's often used to settle legal claims out of court.
"It's my sense that the Gurtlers were a little bit easier to deal with," says Shelley Don, a Denver attorney who has sued the park in the past. "They were more a part of the community. If somebody was hurt, they felt more of a sense of responsibility. What you have now is a commercial operator that pushes to make every nickel it can."
But others say that theme parks make tempting legal targets for cash-hungry plaintiffs.
"I believe there's a perception that amusement parks have deep pockets," says Boyd Jensen II, a California attorney who specializes in defending theme parks. Jensen has represented Premier in several cases, and he says the company prides itself on its safety program and may be more aggressive in court because of it. "Premier takes safety seriously," he says. "They're not going to roll over when people say they made a mistake."
The amusement-park industry insists that most injuries are the result of people ignoring the posted warnings. Susan Mosedale, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, says it's easy to view corporate-owned theme parks as the bad guy when it may be the riders' own irresponsibility that triggers accidents.
"We do know that the majority of incidents that happen at parks are the result of patrons not following the rules," says Mosedale. "A lot of times, the park is portrayed as negligent when it's clearly error on the riders' part."
Elitch's has had its share of tragedy in the past. In 1944, six people died when the Old Mill ride, a romantic tunnel of love, burst into flames. In 1965, Starr Yelland Jr., son of a popular television personality, was thrown from a roller coaster at the park and battled for his life for the next two and a half years before he died. And in 1997, an employee of the amusement park died after falling from the Sidewinder roller coaster. Even though the woman was legally drunk at the time, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Elitch's $32,500 for failing to require the use of safety harnesses by ride operators.
Today, though, with crowds surging through the gates and record revenues, Elitch's owners see nothing but good times ahead. The park's main problem may even be its own success: Just four years after moving to a site that's twice as big as the old park, Elitch's is running out of room. Premier wants to install even more high-tech thrill rides, but it could have a hard time finding the space.
"Six Flags has been known for great thrill rides," says Goodell. "This is our first season as a Six Flags property. We have a ways to go to rise to that standard."
Goodell says park officials may remove the picnic pavilion and the maintenance area behind the Twister to make room for more rides. "It's a relatively small piece of property," says Goodell. "We're landlocked."
The problems of success are a far cry from the potential economic crisis Elitch's faced after its move to the Central Platte Valley. With the Pepsi Center and Colorado's Ocean Journey soon to be its next-door neighbors, Elitch's future as a destination attraction looks secure.
But that's no consolation to Deborah Benagh. Her fun evening in the park led to years of pain, and she wonders who draws the line that determines where the thrills end and the danger begins.
"No one is really looking at the people who've gotten hurt, because no one knows about it--it's not visible," says Benagh. "Unless something very visible happens, they have no incentive to change.