When Sergio Benitez’s cousin and fiancee were reluctant about hopping on the twisting green-and-purple roller coaster that climbed more than 70 feet into the sky, he nudged them with playful peer pressure.
“It’s only going to take 30 seconds to a minute,” Benitez remembered telling them two years ago on a hot August day at Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro, Md. “It’s quick. It’s fast.”
Wary, the two got on the Joker’s Jinx with Benitez and a few other relatives and friends. But shortly after they shot through a loop at 60 mph in under three seconds, the ride began losing momentum and stalled, stopping dead about seven stories in the air.
Benitez’s fiancee at the time, now his wife, turned to him and asked, “Baby, is this part of the ride?”
What promised to be a few minutes of adrenaline rush turned into a five-hour ordeal for Benitez and about two dozen others who eventually had to be rescued from the top of the ride by firefighters.
Two years later, a Prince George’s County judge ordered Six Flags America to pay $10,000 to each of Benitez’s family members stuck that day, totaling $60,000 in damages.
The lawsuit is part of a set of legal actions against Six Flags since the dramatic 2014 rescue made national and international headlines.
Two riders had already settled out of court before the most recent judgment, and one of Benitez’s brothers — who said he suffered nerve damage from the incident — is expected to pursue his case in circuit court, where he has asked for damages in excess of $75,000, said Barry Helfand, the attorney who represented Benitez’s family.
“They were dehydrated, frightened and nauseated,” Helfand said. “One of my clients testified that he had to urinate up there so he urinated in his pants.”
Six Flags declined to comment for this article. Helfand said it remains unclear why the ride stalled.
Benitez wound up at Six Flags America on Aug. 10, 2014, for a family outing with relatives visiting from Paraguay. Benitez, who was raised in Rockville, grew up riding roller coasters at places such as Disney World, Kings Dominion and Hersheypark, and never imagined anything unusual happening during his visit to the amusement park in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
But shortly after he launched out of the start of Joker’s Jinx, the cart carrying him lost momentum, went down a slope and began rocking side-to-side until it came to a complete stop about 75 to 85 feet in the air, leaving the seats tilted sideways in mid-twist.
Benitez said he was sure they would be on their way back down soon. But a few minutes turned into 30 minutes, which turned into two hours, which turned into five.
Benitez’s then-fiancee started crying. His mother, who was on the ground holding the riders’ purses, wallets and cellphones, was terrified. And everyone began to get sunburned, dehydrated and cramped as they sat restrained in the cars under the midday sun.
Helfand and Benitez said worried riders were made even more frightened when the park failed to communicate what was going wrong after the ride first stopped.
“I was scared and anxious and just not knowing what the hell was going to happen,” Benitez said.
After about 2½ hours of intermittent communication with riders through a bullhorn, the park staff called the fire department for assistance, Helfand said.
Firefighters in a retractable bucket eventually made it up to the stranded riders, strapping each one into a harness before releasing the safety bar on the ride’s seats. The riders then walked, one-by-one, along a greasy, narrow running board before hopping into the bucket that brought them back to earth, Helfand and Benitez said.
Benitez said his family and friends suffered from injuries including back pain, cramps, dehydration and numbness from sitting tilted in the slanted carts and being restrained for hours. Benitez’s brother went to the emergency room the next day when he woke up and couldn’t move his neck, the family said.
The family sued, Benitez said, hoping the amusement park will adopt better practices in the event that other riders find themselves in a similar situation.
“How does a multimillion-dollar corporation like Six Flags not have an emergency backup plan, let alone someone trained to be down there somewhere talking to us for five hours just to entertain us, or ask us random stupid questions to get that fear out of our heads?” Benitez said.
“Hopefully we were an example for them to cover these gaps next time they have an emergency.”