As far as Michelle Valdez is concerned, the crowd waiting to take Elitch Gardens' newest thrill ride may have already had their minds erased. A fight that erupted Sunday, May 18, while people stood in a three-hour-long line for the Mind Eraser roller coaster left Valdez's eleven-year-old daughter Savannah lying on the pavement with a sprained knee. But paramedics and security personnel weren't able to remove her from the scene for several minutes because people in the crowded line seemed so worried they would lose their place that they wouldn't clear a path for the injured girl.
"The girls waited two hours in line," says Valdez, "and were almost to the front when some teenagers started yelling at some twenty-year-olds." Valdez says her two daughters, Savannah and fourteen-year-old Pilar, told her that the ensuing fracas appeared to be gang-related as the two sides hurled verbal taunts at each other that soon turned to blows. Packed tightly in a covered series of switchbacks leading up to the coaster, Savannah and Pilar got caught in the crossfire.
When some of the brawlers started throwing landscaping rocks at each other, Savannah was hit in the knee and went down. "Savannah couldn't get up because of the pain," says Valdez, "but no one would go to get help because they didn't want to lose their place in line."
Elitch security guards broke up the fight quickly but didn't notice the injured girl amid the confusion. Finally, says Valdez, some other young girls abandoned their places in line to alert a paramedic, but even when EMTs arrived, the crowd wouldn't part to let them through.
After being extricated from the crowd by Elitch personnel, Savannah was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where she was treated and released. Michelle Valdez says Elitch personnel didn't seem prepared for ugly situations in the park's longest line. "I mean, what would happen if somebody pulled out a gun or a knife?" she asks. "What if somebody had a heart attack? And the design of the line doesn't help, either."
Patrons in the line are directed through a covered "queue house" that has several switchbacks inside it. Ride supervisor Jen Rivera estimates that at peak times, there can be up to 2,000 people packed into this relatively small area. "They're literally on top of each other in there," she says. And the space between the guide rails is so tight that it would be difficult to get to an injured person even without an anxious and unruly crowd clogging the way.
Michelle Valdez wonders why there were no more than three Elitch staffers assigned to the Mind Eraser line. But Rivera says that you could have "a hundred" security people there and it wouldn't make much of a difference as people try to cut in and jostle for position in the line, which often snakes several hundred feet out into the park. "You get a real problem with a wait like that," Rivera explains. "Two people take off to go to the bathroom and six come back. And you always get some rowdy people in there."
And there will likely be no letup. Rivera, who has worked at Elitch Gardens for the past four seasons, says the 45-second-long Mind Eraser ride is Elitch's most popular attraction so far this year, usually resulting in a lengthy wait for patrons. "Ten minutes after we open the park," she says, "the wait for the Mind Eraser will already be an hour long."
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On the day of the Valdez incident, the situation was complicated by a thunderstorm that hit just as the fight broke out. Those who were already under the roof of the queue house refused to move aside. "In a situation like that, you really have to rely on the good nature of the crowd to help out," says Rivera. She points out that she has seen other similar incidents in the past that were much more easily handled because the crowd cooperated.
Denver police officers on patrol in the amusement park detained a few people suspected of participating in the fight, but because of confusion surrounding the scene and Savannah's inability to positively identify the person who threw the rock, no arrests were made.
Elitch operations manager Joe Martinez says the park is going to fence off the queue house in an attempt to keep people from sneaking in the front of the line and adding to the tension of the long wait. Premier Entertainment, which owns Elitch Gardens, has also offered to pay for Savannah's medical bills.
But the fact that the crowd remained more intent on not losing their dry place near the front of the line is what angers Valdez the most. "How asinine is that?" she says. "A little girl is hurt, and people won't get out of the way so she can get help. And it's not even summertime yet.