The 20-year-old New York student killed at Paramount's Kings Dominion Monday night fell while riding in a stand-up roller coaster, a local official said yesterday.
The investigation into the death of Timothy Fan, of Long Island City, is focusing on how he became free of the restraints that are supposed to keep riders locked securely into place, said the Hanover County official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used. The trains on the steel roller coaster reach speeds of 50 mph and spin through two loops while passengers remain standing.
Paramount's Kings Dominion issued a statement last night saying, "While the investigation is not complete, witness statements indicate rider misconduct on the part of Fan may have played a role in the incident."
Betsy Moss, spokeswoman for the park, said that Fan "was not in the train when it returned to the station," but that the ride's restraint system had not malfunctioned and there was no error on the part of the ride's operators.
Fan, a student at Hunter College in New York City, was traveling with a tour group, said Capt. David Hines of the Hanover County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating the incident along with the county building inspector.
The Shockwave ride, which reaches a height of 95 feet, was closed immediately after the 8:40 p.m. incident Monday and will remain shut down until the investigations are complete. Representatives of the designer of the ride were traveling to Doswell, 75 miles south of Washington, to assist in the investigations.
Paramount's Kings Dominion is one of Virginia's most popular tourist spots, drawing more than 2 million guests a year. Park officials said that before Monday, 13 million guests had ridden the Shockwave without a single serious injury since the ride opened in 1986.
Paramount Parks officials said there was no relationship between Monday's incident in Virginia and an accident at Paramount's Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday in which a 12-year-old disabled boy fell to his death on the Drop Zone ride. That ride hoists riders up more than 200 feet, then drops them at speeds reaching 62 mph before a braking system slows them down.
"The incidents are an unfortunate coincidence," said Susan Lomax, a Paramount spokeswoman. The company runs five theme parks in North America and has had five fatal accidents in its 27-year history, she said.
The Shockwave roller coaster is located at the center of Kings Dominion in the shadow of the park's mock Eiffel Tower.
Park officials said the ride is equipped with a "double-restraint" system that includes a shoulder harness and a waist-level guard, designed to prevent excessive movement and to secure riders against a backrest. When in operation, riders stand on a platform and sit on a bicycle-style seat that is fixed between their legs. Riders must be able to reach the platform with their feet when seated.
A ride on the Shockwave lasts two minutes. The 24 passengers in each train go through two loops, one that is essentially a side spiral and the other a single inverted loop that takes riders upside down.
Moss said that before each run of the ride, an operator checks to make sure each rider is securely fastened with the two restraints and that each restraint is double checked before the ride is allowed to leave the entrance station. She said none of Monday night's ride operators has been disciplined, nor has anyone been placed on leave.
The only other fatality at Kings Dominion occurred in 1983, on the Galaxy roller coaster at the park. That ride, according to park officials, was removed shortly after the accident.
The park has no history of serious safety violations, said Hanover County Administrator Richard Johnson. The county building inspector is in charge of monitoring and enforcing safety codes there.
Stand-up roller coasters are relatively rare, with only about a dozen in the nation. But safety experts say they are no more dangerous than coasters that riders sit in. When serious injuries occur, the riders are usually found to have contributed to the accidents, the experts say.
"A lot of the time, it's people's errors that cause this stuff," said Leonard Cavalier, executive director of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, based in Florida.
He said he had no knowledge of the incident in Virginia, but added, "On [roller] coasters, most of the time people are fooling around."
Fan's family was not available for comment yesterday.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tracks the safety of amusement park rides, reports that 9,200 emergency room visits in 1998 resulted from accidents on rides. Forty-three people--or about four a year--died from 1987 to 1997 on amusement rides. Of that number, 11 happened on roller coasters, the deadliest category of rides by far, according to a commission report last month. Those statistics include both amusement parks such as Paramount's Kings Dominion and traveling carnivals.
Joseph and Amy Verner, of Virginia Beach, arrived at Kings Dominion shortly before 1 p.m. yesterday in hopes of going on some of the rides. But they had ruled out the Shockwave even before Monday night's incident. Joseph Verner, 25, said he has been on the Shockwave several times and found it too tame.
"It's definitely ho-hum," he said, thought sitting on a park bench in front of the ride. "You stand there, it takes 30 seconds, and then it's over. It's just not that exciting."
Amy Verner, 28, leaned over and said quickly: "When we heard about it, I said that I guess we weren't going to go on that one. It's just a freak accident; we're not worried about it at all."
Timberg reported from Richmond, and White reported from Doswell, Va.
Roller Coaster Death
A passenger was killed Monday night on the 50-mph Shockwave ride at Paramount's Kings Dominion theme park. The steel roller coaster takes the passengers through several loops that turn them upside down.
Type of coaster: Steel, single track with two loops
Opening date: April 1986
Length of ride: 2 minutes
Length of track: 2,231 feet
First loop: 360 degrees, 66 feet high
Second loop: 540 degrees, banked at 80 degrees, sending riders virtually parallel to the ground
Speed: 50 mph
Capacity: 960 passengers an hour
SOURCE: Kings Dominion