The Deadliest Roller Coaster Accident In America

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For over a century, roller coasters and other amusement park rides have provided thrills by walking the line between scary and fun. Yet for almost as long, these rides have led to accidents that are scarily dangerous. Most recently, an Ohio State Fair attraction known as the Fire Ball malfunctioned, killing one rider and injuring seven others.

The pendulum ride was supposed to give passengers a thrill by swinging them in a circle on a gondola on the Columbus fairgrounds. But on July 26, 2017, a whole row of the gondola fell off and two seatbelts malfunctioned, sending people into a freefall, according to The Washington Post.

Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) described it as “the worst tragedy in the history of the fair,” and called for all of the rides to be shut down while authorities investigate them. As Kevin Lui noted in Time, there have already been at least four serious amusement park accidents since May of 2017, both in the U.S. and abroad: A roller coaster collision in Spain that injured 33, another gondola accident in which a teenager fell 25 feet at a Six Flags in New York state, and two water ride accidents one in California and one in the U.K. that injured a 10-year-old and killed an 11-year-old.

Amusement park rides debuted in the late 19th century, and accidents on them have been documented since at least the early 20th century. In 1915, for example, Coney Island’s Rough Riders roller coaster so named for President Teddy Roosevelt’s calvary during the Spanish-American Civil War killed three people when a car went off the track 30 feet in the air.

The worst came in 1930, when a car on Omaha, Nebraska’s Big Dipper roller coaster fell 35 feet to the ground, killing four and injuring 17. At the time, it was considered the deadliest amusement park accident in U.S. history, and it likely still is today. Krug Park, where the accident occurred, saw its attendance fall sharply after the incident.

The Omaha Bee-News reported at the time that in response to the accident, there would be a “thorough, searching investigation by city and county authorities which probably will result in a permanent ban on roller coasters in Omaha.” Krug Park closed a decade later.

Incidences like this week’s at the Ohio State Fair remind us that horrific amusement park accidents aren’t just nightmare scenarios out of the past. And even more worrisome is that none of the recent accidents have seemed to spur systematic regulatory changes. Omaha, though it possibly banned roller coasters for a spell after the Big Dipper tragedy, is today home to the state’s only roller coaster.

Regulations laid out by amusement park standards groups “are incorporated into laws by some countries and U.S. states, but are otherwise voluntary,” writes Lui in his recent Time article. “In practice, regulation and oversight vary across state and national borders.”

Whether patrons will continue to visit parks that don’t incorporate these standards, however, is another question altogether.

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