Fault Found In Fatal N.j. Ride A Safety Feature Apparently Failed On The Shore Coaster, Investigators Said. A Girl, 8, And Her Mother Died.

Posted: August 30, 1999

OCEAN CITY, N.J. — State officials investigating Saturday's fatal roller-coaster accident here said yesterday that an anti-rollback device apparently had failed, sending a car containing a mother and her young daughter plummeting backward down a 40-foot incline.

The two were then thrown from the Wild Wonder car at 9:51 p.m. as it veered back around a sharp curve before slamming into a car with two passengers waiting in the station, said Bill Connolly, director of the state Division of Codes and Standards.

"All coaster-type rides are equipped with an anti-rollback device," Connolly said during a news conference last night near the site of the accident, on Gillian's Wonderland Pier. "That obviously failed. Precisely how it failed, why it failed . . . we just don't know yet."

As state officials continued to investigate the cause of the failure, operators of Morey's Pier in Wildwood shut down a ride similar to the Wild Wonder until state officials can inspect it and clear it for operation, Connolly said.

The Wild Wonder, manufactured in Italy by Zamperla, opened on Gillian's Wonderland Pier after passing a state inspection July 1. Connolly said it passed a follow-up inspection July 21.

The fatal accident was the first this year at an amusement park in New Jersey, and it was the 12th serious accident, down four from last year's total, said Tom Damm, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

He attributed the drop, despite an increase in rides from 1,400 in 1998 to 1,600 this year, to stiffer fines for operators and more frequent inspections. They were the state's response to a string of serious injuries in 1997, including the death of a child at a water park in North Jersey.

But that did not make Saturday's incident easier to take, Jay Gillian, whose family has operated rides on Ocean City's Boardwalk for 70 years, told reporters yesterday.

"Right now we're all shaken," he said, extending his family's sympathy and prayers to the families of the dead and injured.

Ocean City police yesterday identified the dead as Kimberly Bailey, 39, and Jessica Bailey, 8, of Pomona, N.Y. Both were pronounced dead shortly after the accident at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point. The injured, whom police identified as Irit Taub, 25, of Clementon, and Michael Barteld, 7, of Pine Hill, were treated at Shore Memorial and released.

The Gillian family has hired a consultant to also look into the cause of the accident, Gillian said.

Gov. Whitman helped Gillian's Wonderland Pier open the Wild Wonder in July by pushing the start button, but she vowed not to ride, admitting to a fear of roller coasters. Each of its four cars runs independently and can hold four passengers. Passengers are held in with a lap bar. The cars do not go upside down. They go through a series of steep inclines and drops and several sharp curves.

Gillian's Wonderland Pier, a popular place for young families because most of the rides are for youngsters, remained closed yesterday as investigators from the New Jersey Division of Codes and Standards carried out their work. The pier is at Sixth Street and the Boardwalk.

At times, investigators huddled in discussion on the white metal stairway that climbs about 40 feet to the ride's tallest point. Investigators crouched over the green tracks to get a closer look and took pictures of the ride's cars, each with a picture of Wonderbear, the park's mascot, on the front.

Officer Frank Daly of the Ocean City Police Department said his department had turned the investigation over to the state after concluding "there's nothing criminal involved." Interviews with witnesses and park employees determined that no alcohol or drugs were involved, Daly said.

For the Perriello family from Burlington, Mass., the sounds and sights moments before and after the accident were a horrific start to a vacation.

The Perriellos had just arrived Saturday for a one-week stay at the Beach Watch condominiums on Seventh Street. Debbie Perriello, 44, was standing at the sliding doors to the balcony that overlooks the Wild Wonder when, she said, she heard a loud crack coming from the vicinity of the roller coaster.

"We were like, 'Wow, that doesn't sound right,' " she recalled yesterday from her balcony. Then people waiting in line to get on Wild Wonder "just started running and grabbing their kids," she said.

In a few moments, Perriello had little doubt that a tragedy had occurred: Ambulances, police cars, and patrol officers on bicycles converged at the amusement pier. Lights were flashing. Sirens were screaming.

Minutes later, ambulance crews carried three people out on stretchers. It was a chilling sight to Perriello, whose children had gone on the same ride on a recent visit.

Mary Beth Jones, 40, of Collingswood, had just come off another ride when she saw the scene near the Wild Wonder. "I was sick to my stomach because she had just ridden it earlier in the day," Jones said, nodding toward her 10-year-old daughter, Alyssa.

Greg Young, 35, of Cape May Court House, stood on the sidewalk along Wayne Street, clutching his 4-year-old son, Joe, and watching investigators scour the Wild Wonder tracks.

"I just rode the ride [about a month ago] before and didn't like it," Young said. "It just whips around very fast. The feeling was that the cars were just going to come right off the tracks and tumble over."

The ride does not have seat belts or shoulder harnesses, just lap bars. But like many yesterday, Young was not ready to blame the ride. A resident of Ocean City for 20 years, he said he had always been impressed with the condition of rides at Gillian's Wonderland Pier.

On duty walking the Boardwalk yesterday, Sgt. Eugene Sharpe said that before Saturday, he had "never even heard of an injury" at Wonderland Pier in the 13 years he has been with the Ocean City Police Department.

Some thrill seekers were taking a cautious approach to amusement rides with the Labor Day weekend, a big moneymaker for the Jersey Shore, coming up.

"I gave them all a lecture today," said Linda Johnson, 38, of Springfield, Delaware County, waiting in line on the Boardwalk with her five children, ages 7 to 16, at Gillian's Island water park.

Among the things she told her children, she said, was to "sit and hold on and get seat-belted in."

But she was not considering a ban on rides. Sons Ryan, 12, and Joe, 14, would not stand for such extremes, they said.

"You get one life to live," Joe said as he headed off to the water slides looming behind him. "Live it with adventure."

Nationally, a series of accidents began last Sunday when a disabled 12-year-old boy died on the Drop Zone ride at the Great America park in Santa Clara, Calif., after slipping out of the harness. The ride's six coaches are hoisted 200 feet before free-falling about two-thirds of the way down.

A day later, a man died when he wiggled part-way out of a shoulder harness and fell from the Shockwave, a stand-up roller coaster at Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond, Va.

Other accidents left riders stranded for extended periods. A coaster at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, Calif., came to a sudden halt Wednesday, stranding 28 people for nearly four hours.

"I think that while they are tragic coincidences, I think they are coincidences nonetheless," said Joel Cliff, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. "I think the industry is fundamentally as safe as it's ever been."

Cliff said the average number of amusement park deaths in the United States in the last two decades has been two per year.

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