December 22, 2014

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Industry experts say Cedar Point ride accident ‘fluke’

In this May 4, 2006, file photo, people ride the Skyhawk at Cedar Point. The ride has been closed indefinitely after a cable snapped, injuring two visitors. (AP Photo/The Sandusky Register, Jason Werling, File)

In this May 4, 2006, file photo, people ride the Skyhawk at Cedar Point. The ride has been closed indefinitely after a cable snapped, injuring two visitors. (AP Photo/The Sandusky Register, Jason Werling, File)

SANDUSKY — Anytime an accident or ride malfunction occurs at an amusement or theme park, it makes news.

Because such occurrences are so infrequent in an industry that gave more than 3 billion rides to 375 million visitors across the U.S. in 2013, every mishap is seen as a big deal, according to industry observers and consultants commenting on the weekend shutdown of Cedar Point’s Skyhawk swing ride after a cable came loose, injuring two riders.

“It’s more dangerous for me to get on I-71 and drive than it is to get on 30 roller coasters today and ride them,” Dennis Spiegel said Wednesday.

Spiegel is president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based firm that provides consulting, management and development services to amusement and theme parks.

“Serious ride-related accidents are very rare,” Eric Gieszl of ultimaterollercoaster.com said Wednesday. “Considering the type of thrills Skyhawk delivers and the number of rides it accommodates each year, I think its safety record is still pretty immaculate.”

The 125-foot Skyhawk ride, billed as the world’s tallest, according to the Cedar Point website, sends riders up and out on increasingly wider pendulum-like arcs at speeds of 60 mph while seated on two 20-passenger arms.

Late Saturday night, a support cable on one of the arms came loose during a ride. Two passengers were treated for injuries, one at a hospital, the other at the scene.

“This incident was truly a fluke,” Gary Slade, publisher of the Texas-based Amusement Today, an amusement-theme park industry publication that consistently awards Cedar Point its fan survey-driven Golden Ticket honor as best park in the world.

“Cedar Point and Cedar Fair are leaders in the industry when it comes to safety,” Slade said.

In an emailed response to a phone call seeking information on the status of the ride and the investigation into Saturday’s mishap, Cedar Point public relations manager Bryan Edwards said he had no further updates about the incident.

Edwards did write “there is nothing that commands more attention and is taken more seriously than the issue of safety” as it relates to the park’s guests and workers.

“Each and every ride at Cedar Point must pass daily stringent series of inspections and testing before opening,” Edwards said.

All ride safety systems are checked, regulated, and licensed by “expert inspectors” with the Amusement Ride Safety Division of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Edwards said.

Additionally, companies are hired to use X-ray equipment to inspect steel rides and ride structures for such things as cracks and stress fractures, Spiegel said.

“Ride vehicles are also taken apart annually to ensure their safety and structural soundness,” Slade said.

When he worked at Six Flags Over Texas as a college student, Slade rode rides every day, and grew accustomed to the sounds made by a ride.

“You hear the same sounds over and over,” Slade said. “A lot of times you can pinpoint problems ahead of time if something doesn’t sound right.”

When inspections yield findings of faulty parts like bolts or lap restraints “or show potential failures,” replacements are ordered, suppliers and manufacturers are informed, and safety bulletins are sent to other parks and operators of the same or similar rides “to tell them they need to look at weld connections, or a bolt,” Slade said.

Spiegel called S&S Worldwide, the Utah-based firm that designed and built the ride along with Cedar Point’s Power Tower, a very well-known, highly-regarded manufacturer.

“I’ve been in this industry since 1959 and it’s only gotten better, never worse,” Spiegel said. “In our industry, if things aren’t safe, people won’t come.”

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.