After an hour standing in line, you finally get a seat on the amusement park's most awe-inspiring ride — a towering roller coaster called Millennium Force. The butterflies flutter in your stomach as the ride operator secures the restraint over your shoulders and you realize there's no turning back. Ahead, the rail seems to climb into the clouds. Your heartbeat doubles as the car creeps ahead — up, up, up until you top out at 310 feet (94 meters) on the precipice of a near-vertical drop [source: Cedar Point]. This is a bad time to wonder: Is this thing safe?
You'll be glad to know before you hurtle down the track at 93 miles per hour (150 kilometers per hour) that the answer is yes. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) estimates the chance of being killed on an amusement park ride is just 1 in 750 million [source: IAAPA, "Amusement"]. Compare that to the likelihood you'll be struck by lightning in a given year, which, at about 1 in 960,000, makes roller coasters look exceedingly safe [source: NWS].
Still, deaths do happen. Between 1994 and 2004, 22 people were killed on roller coasters in the United States because of rider or operator error or mechanical failure (an additional 18 died from pre-existing medical conditions) [source: Pelletier and Gilchrist]. And while these incidents are certainly the exception during the roller coaster's 200-plus-year history, there are still a frighteningly high number of incidents to choose from for our list of 10 deadliest roller coaster accidents.
Wildcat, Bell's Amusement Park, 1997
If you've ever ridden a roller coaster, you know the nervous excitement that builds as the cars slowly climb to the top of the ride. It's the calm before a thrilling blur of speed, tight turns and 360-degree loops. Now imagine how terrifying it would be if the lift chain pulling your car to the summit malfunctioned and sent it careening backward. That's exactly what happened on April 20, 1997, at Bell's Amusement Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
That day, visitors packed the park for a special 25-cent-per-ride promotion. A popular attraction was the Wildcat roller coaster, which had been testing Tulsans' nerves since 1974. As one of the ride's cars reached the top of the highest hill it stalled out, and a safety device meant to keep it from sliding backward failed. The car slipped 45 feet (13.7 meters) back down the track and slammed into another car, ejecting a 14-year-old boy who was the lone fatality. Six other people were injured [source: Orlando Sentinel].
State investigators ultimately determined that Bell's had replaced a plastic part of the anti-rollback device with a material that was not approved by the manufacturer. While the victim's families negotiated a financial settlement with the park's owners, criminal charges were eventually dropped. Bell's Amusement Park closed in 2006.
Willard's Whizzer, Marriott's Great America Amusement Park, 1980
Roller coasters don't have to reach extreme height or speed to cause a fatal accident. Take Willard's Whizzer, which peaked at just 70 feet (21.3 meters) and clocked in at a paltry 42 miles per hour (67.6 kilometers per hour). It was so tame that when it was first constructed in 1976, its cars didn't even have restraints [source: Besoyan].
The incident occurred on March 29, 1980, when a teenage boy was stepping onto the ride. Without warning, a second train came up behind the one he was boarding and rammed it. The impact threw the teen onto the tracks where the runaway train crushed his chest and abdomen. Eight others were injured in the accident, one of five fatal incidents in the park's history [source: Kaplan and Nelson].
Because the second train breached several automatic safety systems, investigators pinned the blame on an electric signal that disrupted the roller coaster's computer [source: California Research Bureau]. In an effort to rejuvenate the ride's image, the park put seatbelts in the cars and renamed the ride, simply, Whizzer. Nevertheless, the park eventually disassembled Whizzer in 1988.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Disneyland, 2003
In 1979 Disneyland built its Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride around a runaway-mine-train theme complete with caves, mineshafts and a desert landscape. That premise became all too real in 2003 when part of a train actually derailed, killing one rider and injuring 10 others.
The train, which consists of a small locomotive and five cars that can carry 32 people, had just shot up a hill and into a tunnel when the accident happened. A wheel assembly fell off the locomotive, jamming one of the axles and causing the back end of the locomotive to kick up and hit the top of the tunnel. The front car then struck the locomotive's undercarriage, killing one man who had to be extricated from the wreckage by emergency workers. When the dust settled, the locomotive sat derailed at the top of the hill while the remaining cars stayed on the tracks and came to rest 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9.1 meters) away at the bottom of the incline [sources: Pfeifer et al., Luna].
Investigators from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) later released a report blaming park maintenance workers, ride operators and a mechanic for the accident. Disney settled with the deceased rider's family for an undisclosed amount of money.
Fujin Raijin II, Expoland, 2007
May 5, 2007, was Children's Day in Japan, but no one was celebrating after a roller coaster accident left one dead and 19 injured in Osaka. The incident occurred on the Fujin Raijin II ride at Expoland, an amusement park first built for the International Exposition in 1970. The coaster's design required riders to stand throughout the 0.65-mile (1,050-meter) course, where the six-car trains reached speeds as high as 47 miles per hour (75 kilometers per hour) [source: The Japan Times].
Everything seemed normal when 20 passengers got on the Fujin Raijin II in the early afternoon. The ride was more than halfway over when, suddenly, the second car derailed and tilted dramatically to the left toward the guardrail. That proved fatal for one young woman, who struck her head on the railing as the coaster roared down the tracks. And so it continued, making a horrible scraping sound before finally coming to a rest some 328 yards (300 meters) later.
According to Expoland's operator, a broken wheel axle was responsible for the tragic accident. The problem might have been caught during the ride's annual maintenance, but these repairs didn't happen in 2007: The park claimed it didn't have enough workspace to disassemble and inspect the cars. Expoland closed in 2009, 1.6 billion yen in the hole, thanks in large part to declining ticket sales in the wake of the coaster disaster [source: Japan Economic Newswire].
Derby Racer, Revere Beach, 1911-1936
The concept behind the Derby Racer at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, was a fun one: Two trains raced down parallel tracks to a finish line at the bottom of the ride. You can imagine the scene as teenagers screamed and taunted one another as one car pulled ahead, then the other, through a series of dips and curves on the figure-eight-shaped course. But excitement and friendly competition often turned to tragedy thanks to the coaster's abysmal safety record.
Things got off to a bad start in June 1911 when the treasurer of the roller coaster company was fatally injured, ironically, when he stood up to lecture other passengers about safety. The accident, which was actually the second fatality of the year, forced local officials to revoke the ride's license until workers could install brakes and safety restraints in the passenger cars [source: The New York Times, June 10, 1911 and The Boston Daily Globe, June 9, 1911, June 12, 1911]. Apparently, however, the restraints didn't do much good. In 1917 a man lost his hat as the train headed up a steep incline, and he fell out of his car while attempting to recover it. He tumbled onto the other track where he was hit by a train and dragged 35 feet (10.7 meters). He died, according to the newspaper, after breaking "nearly every bone in [his] body" [source: The Boston Daily Globe and July 16, 1917].
In 1936 the Derby Racer was demolished, but not, evidently, because of its bad reputation. The roller coaster that replaced it was simply called "the new Derby Racer" [source: Francis and Francis].
Wild Wonder, Wonderland Pier, 1999
Ocean City, New Jersey, is a place where families go to relax and enjoy the beaches and boardwalk. Among the many recreational opportunities available to vacationers is Gillian's Wonderland Pier, an amusement park located on the north end of the boardwalk. With its festive carnival vibe and crowds of wide-eyed children, it's easy to forget it was the site of a fatal roller coaster accident in 1999.
The coaster, called the Wild Wonder, had been open only a couple of months when passengers loaded the doomed train on Aug. 28. The cars slowly rolled around a 90-degree curve before ascending the ride's first grade. Just before it topped out at the 41-foot (12.5-meter) crest, however, the drive chain disengaged prematurely and the anti-rollback device malfunctioned, sending the train tearing backward into the turn.
While the cars stayed on the tracks, the force of the curve ejected a mother and her daughter whose safety bar failed to hold them in their seats. The pair struck the roller coaster's walls and support columns, fell 10 feet (3 meters) to the ground below and were pronounced dead at the hospital a short time later. The wrong-way car continued to roll down the track, striking another train in the loading area and injuring two of its passengers [source: McFadden].
In the end, investigators determined that a faulty brake replacement caused the accident. The New Jersey Community Affairs Department fined the park's owner and the coaster's manufacturer $55,000 for safety-rule violations [source: The Morning Call].
Rough Riders, Coney Island, 1915
Today, a roller coaster named "Rough Riders" wouldn't sound particularly appealing. But in 1915 the Spanish-American War, which featured Theodore Roosevelt's legendary "Rough Riders" cavalry regiment, was still a recent memory, so it probably sounded awesome. Not so on July 27 of that year, however, when an accident killed three riders and injured three others.
The Rough Riders, originally known as Drop-the-Dip, was located in Coney Island, New York. The coaster operated much like a modern subway: Each train had a driver and an electric motor powered by a third rail that propelled its riders up hills and around corners.
On that fateful summer day in 1915, six people boarded the ride. Excitement built as they slowly passed through an exhibit that recalled scenes from the war. Then, the train accelerated. A crowd looked on as it shot down an incline and headed into a sharp turn. Suddenly, the wheels left the track, flipping the car on its side and hurling the driver and four passengers into a flimsy iron railing 30 feet (9.1 meters) above the pavement. Three fell to their deaths while two — a woman and her 4-year-old son — clung to the wrecked car's handrail until police were able to rescue them. Another person was injured when the driver's body struck her as she watched from the ground [source: The New York Times, July 28, 1915].
Witnesses claimed that the accident was caused by excessive speed as the train entered the turn. However, jurors ultimately exonerated the ride's manager on charges of homicide after determining that the accident was "unavoidable."
Mindbender, Fantasyland, 1986
The 1986 Mindbender accident is the only disaster on the list that happened indoors, but that doesn't make it any less tragic. The ride, said to be the largest indoor triple-loop coaster, featured steel construction and a four-car train. It was the main attraction of the West Edmonton Mall's amusement park, Fantasyland [source: Franklin].
It was June 14, 1986, just one day after an Alberta province safety inspector declared the ride safe. The train slid around a turn at 60 miles per hour (96.5 kilometers per hour), gaining momentum for the first of the three loops. Before it got there, though, the rear car began to fishtail. It proceeded through the first two loops but derailed as it approached the third loop, stalling at the top and sliding backward into a concrete column. Three riders perished and at least 15 were injured, one seriously [source: UPI].
Investigators determined that missing bolts in a wheel assembly caused the accident. The ride was subsequently closed for several months while the operators made safety improvements to the cars including the installation of anti-rollback mechanisms, seatbelts and headrests. Additionally, the number of seats per car was reduced from 16 to 12, and the number of cars in the train was reduced from four to three. Since then, the amusement park's name has changed from Fantasyland to Galaxyland, and the Mindbender has, thankfully, been accident-free [source: Franklin].
Big Dipper, Krug Park, 1930
Local beer magnate Frederick Krug was the owner and namesake of Omaha, Nebraska's Krug Park, but no alcohol was involved when The Big Dipper's train derailed on July 24, 1930. Instead, it was mechanical failure that led to the deadliest roller coaster accident in United States history.
The train's four cars were heavily loaded as they departed the boarding area and headed up the first incline. According to investigators, that's when a piece of the brake system worked its way loose and jammed the wheels on one of the cars. It jumped the tracks, breaking through a guardrail before plummeting 35 feet (10.7 meters) to the ground below. Tragically, the coaster's lift chain continued to run, pushing the other three cars over the edge with the first one. Many riders found themselves pinned underneath the runaway train, which ultimately killed four people and injured 19 [source: Associated Press].
Business declined after the disaster, forcing Krug Park to close by 1940. In 1945, concerned citizens launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the land and reopen it as a city park, which they did in 1955. The site now known as Gallagher Park boasts a swimming pool and baseball field — no roller coasters in sight [source: Horan].
Big Dipper, Battersea Park, 1972
In 1972 Battersea Park in London, England, was the scene of what's widely considered the worst roller coaster disaster in history. The ride in question was The Big Dipper, a three-car wooden roller coaster built in 1951 as the main attraction for the park's new Fun Fair. It was hugely popular, comparable to today's iconic London Eye.
Ominously, the coaster experienced problems from the beginning. In May 1951 an empty car derailed and knocked over a protective railing, stranding passengers in the other cars. Disaster struck again in 1968 when another crash gave a woman a broken arm.
But, by far, the worst accident at The Big Dipper happened in the late afternoon of May 30, 1972. That's when 31 people climbed aboard the coaster for a few minutes of heart-pounding fun. Instead, excitement turned to terror as the lift chain prematurely released at the top of the first incline, sending the cars plummeting backward down the hill and into a turn. The train derailed, killing five children and injuring 13 others [source: Brown].
In the aftermath of the accident, the park manager and the coaster's engineer were charged with manslaughter, though they were cleared at trial. But the accident was the beginning of the end for the coaster and the park. The Big Dipper was closed and demolished soon after the tragedy, and the Fun Fair shut its doors in 1974.
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Author's Note: 10 Deadliest Roller Coaster Accidents
I've never been a big fan of roller coasters. Diving down steep inclines, tearing around tight curves, turning upside down — it all just feels out of control. While this article shows that accidents do happen, almost everyone makes it through unscathed, and some even have smiles on their faces. So if roller coasters are your thing, you should keep riding, but leave me on the ground, and I'll watch.
More Great Links
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