The public is no closer to knowing what caused a Dallas mother’s fatal fall from the Texas Giant roller coaster Friday night in Arlington. When answers do arrive, they will almost certainly come from Six Flags Over Texas via its legal and public relations team rather than an independent investigator.
Both the Arlington police and fire departments were called to the scene. But neither is expected to conduct long, intensive investigations because Rosy Esparza’s death was believed to be an accident.
The state regulator is on the case, but the Texas Department of Insurance’s primary duty is ensuring the rides have insurance and are inspected. That’s not an issue in this case.
Six Flags officials initially said they were “working with authorities” to determine the cause of the fatality. Later, they acknowledged that this is an internal investigation into only the second customer to die on a ride since the park opened in 1961.
Kenneth Martin, a roller coaster inspector and accident investigator often hired by lawyers and manufacturers, said there is no Texas agency responsible for accident investigations. And police tend to not pursue deaths and serious injuries without evidence of a crime.
“In all likelihood do you think Six Flags is going to come out and say ‘we screwed up,’” he said. “Probably not.”
He said the lack of governmental oversight may mean the factors contributing to the woman’s death remain unknown.
Those determining the cause will likely be Six Flags staff, its insurance company, an inspector hired by the park or insurance company, and the German firm that manufactured the cars. With a lawsuit against Six Flags likely, it’s not certain how much information will be made public soon.
In a written statement, a Six Flags spokeswoman said that it was too early to comment in detail on the cause.
“We are committed to determining the cause of this tragic accident and will utilize every resource throughout this process,” wrote Sharon Parker, a park spokeswoman. “It would be a disservice to the family to speculate regarding what transpired. When we have new information to provide, we will do so. Our thoughts, prayers and full support remain with the family.”
Several of Esparza’s family members declined to comment. At least one family member said they had hired an attorney.
Arlington police responded to a 911 call at the park about 6:30 p.m. Officers helped “gather preliminary details, interview witnesses and rule out foul play,” said Sgt. Christopher Cook, a department spokesman.
He said a report on their death investigation would not be available earlier than Monday. There is no criminal investigation.
Parker said the ride would remain closed until Six Flags’ internal investigation is complete.
Jerry Hagins, state Department of Insurance spokesman, said the ride can’t legally reopen until it is re-inspected and proof of that is provided to the state.
Witnesses reported that Esparza fell from one of the roller coaster’s cars as it rounded a turn Friday evening.
One witness, Carmen Brown of Arlington, said Esparza was concerned that her safety restraint was not properly secured. Brown said a Six Flags worker assured the victim that she was fine.
“She was nervous and panicking,” Brown said.
The witness, however, mentioned concerns about the number of times the safety bar clicked when it was lowered. But a representative of the manufacturer said there would be no clicking sound in the hydraulically operated mechanism.
“We have to investigate what has happened there,” said Tobias Lindnar, project manager for Gerstlauer Amusement Rides. “I’m sure there’s no safety bar that is broken.”
He said the 30-year-old ride manufacturer based in Münsterhausen, Germany has never had problems with the safety bars in its cars. The firm has built about 50 roller coasters throughout the world. No one was ever seriously injured or killed on one until Friday, Lindnar said.
Lindnar said from Germany late Saturday that he didn’t want to speak about how a hydraulic bar would operate or whether or not employees at the park should be able to gauge whether a person’s body is too close to the front of the train car to prevent the bar from being effective enough.
“At this time I don’t want to speak about the technicals,” he said. “It’s not so easy. It’s some special equipment.”
He said once the ride begins, there’s no chance of opening the safety bar.
“Next week we will be on site and we will see what has happened,” he said.
Eventually, there should be a ruling about whether there was a mechanical failure or whether Esparza was not secured properly in the car. There could be other scenarios.
Martin, the ride investigator, said roller coasters have one-size-fits-all safety bars, generally designed for someone who weighs 180 pounds.
He said most parks rely on the manufacturer’s information to determine how far from the starting position a safety bar should be in relation to a person’s weight in order to be effective.
Park employees should be trained to determine whether a safety bar is in a safe position in relation to a person’s body weight, Martin said.
It’s not known if the Six Flags employee who checked the safety restraint of Esparza, who was a large woman, took that into account.
Martin said determining someone’s weight is difficult.
Before Friday, few injuries on the newly reconstructed Texas Giant had been reported to the state. The state Department of Insurance showed four injuries since the ride reopened in 2011.
The $10 million project transformed it from a wooden roller coaster into a wooden-steel hybrid coaster. It was named the Best New Ride of 2011 by an industry group.
Overall, the park reported 110 injuries to the state since the start of the 2008 season. These reports, however, are submitted by the ride operators with little outside scrutiny.
Nationally, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions published a report in March that said in 2011, 4.3 in 1 million people who visited a park or attraction sustained an injury on a ride. The numbers were based on a survey of parks that self-reported injuries on their properties.
“Events like this are extremely rare, and safety is the No. 1 priority for the amusement park industry,” association spokeswoman Colleen Mangone said Saturday.
The data did not tabulate deaths.
The only other death of a guest on a Six Flags Over Texas ride occurred in 1999 when a Roaring Rapids raft capsized. Valeria Cartwright of West Helena, Ark., drowned and 10 others were injured.
Brandon Formby and Jeff Mosier - The Dallas Morning News (MCT). Staff Writer Tanya Eiserer contributed to this report.
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