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Lagoon questions data on injuries

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FARMINGTON — The Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report last week that says the number of injuries at America's amusement parks have doubled in the past four years from 3,720 injuries in 1996 to 7,260 last year.

However, Lagoon officials and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions — of which the Utah park is a longtime member — question the statistics and have called for an independent review of the report.

"The industry is very proud of our safety," Dick Andrew, Lagoon spokesman said. "We have an amazing safety record."

Speaking to the Associated Press, association President John Graff said the report may be flawed because it was based on a small sample of injuries at 100 U.S. hospitals and researchers simply projected their numbers. Still, even if the report is correct, that means there is only 1 serious injury per 27 million rides.

Consumer Products Safety Commission spokesman Russ Rader said the report confirms a trend — nationwide amusement park attendance rose less than 10 percent in the past four years, but injuries increased almost 100 percent.

"Safety is the No. 1 priority we have," Andrew said, explaining that each of Lagoon's 40 rides goes through three inspection procedures every day. In addition, the rides also have periodic inspections from independent parties, both private consultants Lagoon hires, and also insurance-related inspectors.

Lagoon declined to release figures on ride-related injuries there, but Andrew said Lagoon has had three fatalities in its 115-year history. He stressed that the majority of those killed or injured on amusement rides don't follow the regulations.

Andrew said it is estimated that 3 billion rides are taken annually by Americans at fixed-site amusement parks (which excludes traveling carnivals). He said the death rate on those rides holds steady at about two per year.

"That means the chances of a fatality are 1 in 1.5 billion," he said.

Andrew said that means amusement parkgoers are statistically in much greater danger driving to the park — or even in taking a shower — than in going on a park ride.

Andrew said you can't be sure that the injury reporting for rides is accurate because it may include such things as bee stings, heat exhaustion or illness at an amusement park. Causes are difficult to separate.

He suspects a major reason for this new in-depth report is that there was a string of park fatalities nationally at the end of last summer. During the third week of August in 1999, four persons were killed in roller-coaster accidents, including two in New York, one in California and one in Virginia.

"We're such a high-profile business," Andrew said. "People all feel like they're a part of it. It's news."

Lagoon attracts 1.25 million visitors each year.

Andrew said Lagoon officials drafted legislation to create such a state ride inspection program, but lawmakers didn't believe there was a demonstrated need for one.

Two of Lagoon's ride fatalities occurred during a seven-week stretch in 1989. The first was on the Puff the Little Fire Dragon kiddie roller coaster and the second was on the wooden roller coaster.

Ryan Beckstead, 6, of Bountiful, was killed on April 30, 1989, when he worked free from two locked restraining devices in the back seat of the Puff kids roller coaster. He then stood up as the ride was leaving the station, fell out of the car and was climbing back onto the tracks when the ride returned and struck him. It is believed that Beckstead thought the ride was over as he left his seat.

This was the first-ever fatality on the Puff ride, used throughout other amusement parks in North America; Lagoon had already had the ride manufacturer add extra safety equipment on the children's coaster and was the only park to ever do so.

Kilee King, 13, also of Bountiful, died on June 9, 1989, after she fell 35 feet from the wooden roller coaster. She stood up despite a locked retraining bar, lost her balance and fell out of the car after it had crested the coaster's second hill.

After this accident, Lagoon shifted the seats forward on the coaster cars to help prevent that type of incident from happening again. Signs, dating back decades, have warned riders not to try to stand up on the roller coaster.

The park's first-ever ride-related deaths occurred on Aug. 20, 1934, when park employee Ernest H. Howe, 20, of Ogden was standing up on the wooden roller coaster as it crested the first hill.

Another park employee, James Y. Hess, 23, of Farmington, died when he was struck by a car while working on the roller coaster's scaffolding on Sept. 1, 1946.

The commission's new report does show that roller coasters accounted for 31 of the 49 U.S. ride fatalities from 1987 to 1999.

There have also been at least four other deaths in the Utah park, but they weren't ride-related. They include an employee who fell off a garbage truck in the parking lot and the drowning of a man who broke into the park after it was closed. The other two deaths included seizure and heart attack victims.

Contributing: The Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com