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Wednesday
Jul242013

Six Flags Death Highlights Lack of Federal Oversight on Safety

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The death of a Texas woman who fell 75 feet from a roller coaster has raised questions about lax and inconsistent oversight of theme parks, highlighting the fact that no agency monitors the number of amusement park fatalities in America each year.

Rosa Ayala-Gaona fell to her death Friday afternoon from the top of the Texas Giant coaster at Six Flags Over Texas, after slipping out of a t-shaped lap bar on the ride.

She was 52 years old, and, according to one witness, had expressed concern about being properly strapped into the seat before the ride began.

"She goes up like this [lifts her arms] and then when it [the roller coaster] drops to come down, that's when it released and she just tumbled," Carmen Brown, who was on the ride with Ayala-Gaona, told ABC News.

Six Flags and the maker of the ride, German company Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, have said they will investigate the death themselves. Once criminal activity is ruled out as a cause of Ayala-Gaona's death, no federal or local law enforcement authorities will investigate.

In fact, injuries and deaths on amusement rides at parks such as Six Flags, known as "fixed-place amusement rides," are not subject to inspection or investigation by any federal oversight committee the way traveling carnivals or rides are.

The fixed-place parks must abide by state and local laws, but have resisted any efforts for federal regulation, according to Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who has fought to have rides overseen by the federal government.

Following Ayala-Gaona's death on Friday, Markey said that families on summer vacations are assuming a huge risk because of a lack of federal regulations, and that there have been enough serious accidents to warrant federal intervention.

Markey, who did not respond to request for comment Wednesday, told ABC News in 2008 that the federal government should have oversight over all amusement rides, whether fixed-place or mobile.

"In short, the federal government has no role if there is a huge accident on a roller coaster going a hundred miles an hour where children are injured in one state to ensure that it is inspected, that the safety problem is corrected, and the other 49 states are then warned that there is a problem," Markey said.

Without federal regulations, different states can have different regulations for ride inspection and safety, including who is in charge of inspecting rides or investigating accidents and how the accidents are reported to the state or other parks.

In Texas, where Ayala-Goana died, no regulatory agency oversees rides, though the Texas Department of Insurance approves them and ensures they are inspected, according to ABC News affiliate WFAA. The inspection sticker for the Texas Giant was good through February 2014.

With the lack of federal oversight comes a lack of nationwide data about theme park fatalities. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees carnival ride safety, has no jurisdiction over theme park rides and stopped collecting data on fatalities more than five years ago.

The Occupational Safety Hazard Administration, which oversees theme park rides in some states, only collects data on operator and employee fatalities and injuries, not those of customers.

Some researchers have tried to plug the gap in data collection, including Gary Smith, of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Smith has published studies documenting injuries from theme park rides, but has not published data about fatalities. In a paper published in May, Smith found an average of 4,423 injuries per year in amusement park riders under the age of 17.

You can find injury statistics for theme parks at Amusement Safety Organization.

According to the San Antonio Express News, an average of 230 people have been injured on Texas rides from 2000 to 2008, including 120 who broke bones, 60 who had their teeth chipped or knocked out, and four people who suffered amputations.

After Ayala-Goana's death on Friday, a similar coaster, the Iron Rattler at the Six Flags Fiesta Texas park in San Antonio, was shut down as a precaution, according to park managers there.

"There are some similarities. It was closed late Friday evening when we heard of the incident," spokeswoman Sydne Purvis said.

But other parks across the country continue to operate their roller coasters.

The CEO of Six Flags, James Reid-Anderson, said Monday that he expects the company to see "short- to medium-term attendance impact at the park," due to safety concerns after Ayala-Gaona's death, but that other parks should fare fine after the safety scare, according to USA Today.

Six Flags did not respond to ABC News for comment.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, an industry trade association, said in a statement to ABC News Monday that "events like [Ayala-Goana's death] are extremely rare and safety is the number one priority for the amusement park industry."

The group said that the chance of being seriously injured on an amusement park ride in the U.S. is one in 24 million, while the likelihood of being killed is one in 750 million. The IAAPA declined to comment about whether federal regulations would help ensure safer rides.

"Safety is a partnership between an amusement park and its patrons," the statement read. "Unfortunately, a majority of the injuries occur because the guest didn't follow posted ride safety guidelines or rode with a pre-existing medical condition," the statement read.

ABC News' parent company, The Walt Disney Company, operates Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida.

Theme parks in California are regulated by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, and rides are inspected annually by state inspectors.

In Florida, the state's Department of Agriculture is in charge of inspecting theme park rides and carnivals except for parks that have more than 1,000 employees and full-time inspectors on staff, such as Disney World. Then, staff inspectors are responsible for investigating and reporting all incidents to the state, according to the company.

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