Major corporations running theme parks and major amusement parks that attract visitors from across the world are frequently multi-billion dollar companies. The scope and expense of maintaining large theme parks, rides, and other attractions can generally only be managed by extremely large organizations with significant resources. However, the scope and resources available to an organization, in isolation, does not guarantee that parks will be adequately and safely maintained. Furthermore, the availability of resources in itself does not mean that an organization will necessarily invest into technologies even if they are proven to improve safety outcomes.
Aside from these factors, parks must also establish an engineering and corporate culture that places safety above all other concerns. Unfortunately, some news reports that have emerged following the Dreamworld rapids ride accident seem to indicate that there were serious issues with the park’s safety culture. Furthermore, reports seem to indicate that the installation and use of a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment known as a “limit switch” would have likely prevented the fatal Thunder River Rapids ride accident.
Investigators Determine Ride Accident Was Convergence of Mechanical Malfunction and Human Error
When we last wrote about this tragic park accident, investigators were still hard at work piecing together exactly what went wrong. After sufficient time to deliberate and assess evidence, investigators have concluded that, as is so often the case, multiple factors played a role in causing the raft to overturn. All in all, although the Thunder River Rapids ride is considered one of the parks less aggressive and intense rides, this accident shows that even rides perceived as “safe” can become deadly when problems in an organization’s safety culture develop.
According to investigators, the ill-fated raft had nearly completed the entire rapids course and returned to the unloading area. However, after coming to the top of the final hill that should have channeled the raft to the area where riders disembark, an empty raft had become stuck at the end of the conveyor belt. Investigators believe that the stuck raft was caused by a mechanical malfunction on the ride. There was apparently no working sensor to detect the raft and it seems that ride operators did not notice the stuck raft.
When the conveyor belt caught the group’s raft and carried it forward, the raft crashed into the stuck, empty raft. The force of the impact pushed the occupied raft forward but due to the empty raft being lodged against the side of the course, the occupied raft essentially “jack-knifed” in a fashion similar to an 18-wheeler truck. The jack-knifed raft flipped over spilling two occupants into the water where they are believed to have been fatally injured by the conveyor belt and other machinery. The two other adults on the raft ride were trapped under the water under the flipped over raft. Only two children riders were able to escape the accident with their lives.
Amusement Rides and Devices Standards Committee Engineer Blames Accident on Lack of “Limit Switch”
According to Dr. David Eager, who serves as Engineering Australia’s representative on the Amusement Rides and Devices Standards Committee, the primary cause of the accident was likely a fault “limit switch.” A limit switch is a type of sensor that most rides are equipped with. The sensor can detect when cars or rafts pass by. The purpose of the switch is to maintain sufficient distance between the ride vehicles so that collisions and other uncontrolled and undesired events do not occur. Dr. Eager opined that a faulty limit switch combined with other factors, like human error, to make the accident inevitable.
Recently Released Incident Reports Show Problems with Park’s Safety Culture
Reports have emerged that the Thunder River Rapids ride was experiencing mechanical issues on the morning of the accident. In fact, the ride had been shut down at least three times that day leaving some riders stranded for more than 30 minutes. However, the documents that were released suggest that the safety problems went much deeper. Reports that raised safety questions include:
- In 2012, safety inspector Shaun Johnson determined that the air receivers on 13 rides, including the rapids ride, were “not fit for service.” Johnson alleges that the park pressured him to change the report, but he did not. In his report, he claimed, “The engineering department at Dreamworld did not produce any evidence of having a Quality Management System in place or any previous vessel inspection report.”
- Also in 2012, an audit log noted that at least several of the park’s waterslides were in “dire” need of maintenance. The log noted visible rust, leaks, cracks, and use of tape to fix these problems.
- In March, a nurse reported that she had to catch her son from falling from the rapids ride. She stated, “There is a point in the ride … just before you go up the conveyor belt where you hit a rougher part of the water and you get a jolt. Sometimes that jolt makes you bounce off your seat. On this day we hit the water so hard that it forced my son up from his seat and his seat belt became undone. My friend and I caught him mid-air and put him back in his seat.”
Contact a Pennsylvania Amusement Park Accident Lawyer If You Were Injured
The Australian Workers’ Union also claims that it had notified park management regarding seemingly systemic maintenance and safety problems 18 months prior to the accident. While a Union spokesperson declined to comment further, he did say that previous incidents, including a fatal fall from the park’s log flume ride, were unlikely to, “sit in isolation.”