PA’s regulation of amusement parks falls short in inspections, enforcement

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While amusement rides thrill many fans and bring tourism dollars to the state, they can be dangerous — and sometimes deadly.

The public was reminded of that in July, when Rosy Esparza, 52, plunged to her death in front of family members after falling out of a 14-story roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas. Six Flags, along with local police, is conducting an investigation into the death. The Texas Department of Insurance, which regulates the industry in Texas, requires a safety inspection by parks just once a year.

That death has renewed calls for federal regulation of amusement park rides. U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass, tried but failed as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to get a bill passed for a federal agency, such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, to oversee amusement parks.

“A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour,” Markey said in a statement. “This is a mistake.”

However, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, wrote: “Pennsylvania’s amusement ride safety program has a longstanding reputation for being one of the best and safest in the nation.”

The department “takes seriously its charge to protect the public,” the spokeswoman, Nicole Bucher, wrote in an email.

The bureau declined to answer many of PublicSource’s questions, saying that the bureau’s method of keeping track of inspections and accidents was complicated. When PublicSource reporters offered to travel from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to talk with bureau officials, they did not respond.

Gov. Corbett, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story, saying the Department of Agriculture speaks for him on the issue.

The last death on a Pennsylvania amusement ride, according to the bureau, occurred in September 2001. Seven-year-old Matthew Allen Potter of York Township, Pa., was on a roller coaster at the York Fair when the ride stopped suddenly and Potter was thrown forward. He died of his injuries later that night.

By law, carnivals and fairs must file inspection reports every time rides are set up, instead of every 30 days, as required for permanent and water parks.

More than 1,000 accidents were reported to the state in the last five years. The severity of the accidents is difficult to determine from the reports. Pennsylvania law requires amusement park owners to file reports of serious injuries — those that require medical attention or result in hospitalization or death.

Those injuries included concussions, a broken pelvis, two electric shocks, a broken vertebra and broken ribs.

A repeat offender

Chairlifts at Sno Cove, now called Montage Mountain. (Photo by Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)

Scranton’s troubled Sno Cove is one example of a park that has not regularly reported its inspections or serious accidents to the state. (Sno Cove went bankrupt in 2012 and was purchased by Montage Mountain in 2013.)

Anthony Griffith and his mother are suing Sno Cove’s owner for damages for multiple injuries after the then 12-year-old was injured in a water slide accident in 2011, according to Lackawanna County court records. The Griffith family did not respond to requests for an interview.

Regina Prussack said that she, too, was injured at Sno Cove.

Prussack, who is unemployed and on Social Security disability, took her two kids to Sno Cove in July 2011. With tickets at about $20 each, her pocketbook took a hit. She expected to watch her kids splash in the water, washing away their hard lives for a few hours.

 

Regina Prussack, who said she was injured on a ski lift at Sno Cove in Scranton, with her children Joseph, left and Jonnie, right, at their home in Jermyn, Pa. (Photo by Michael J. Mullen/Scanton Times-Tribune)

 

As she was getting onto the chair lift with her children, she asked the ride attendant not to start the ride until she was ready. 

But the ride attendant started the ride anyway, and Prussack fell 15 feet, she said.

“People screamed and told them to stop the ride,” Prussack said. “I didn’t have enough time to get the bar down.”

She and a friend went to the park twice and called multiple times asking for an accident report, but the park did not respond.

There was no record of the accident in the documents the bureau released to PublicSource. Nor did the bureau know the chair lift was being used as a ride and wasn’t registered until PublicSource asked about it.

The chair lift was not shut down, according to bureau officials.

Montage Mountain employees did not respond to PublicSource’s email messages or phone calls requesting comment for this story. Attempts to reach Sno Cove’s previous president, Denis Carlson, were unsuccessful.

Today, Prussack said she suffers from a painful neck condition caused by the accident. She has popped as many as five oxycodone pills, a powerful painkiller, a day. She walks with a claw-like, four-pronged cane. She’s 41.

“I can’t do anything with my kids anymore,” Prussack said.

The bureau responds

After PublicSource asked the bureau about a number of parks that turned in no inspection reports last year, Remmert and his staff contacted the parks. Some of the parks then sent reports dated 2012 to the bureau. The bureau time-stamped the reports July 2013 and emailed them to PublicSource.

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