Experts question how kids got on Idlewild coaster without adult
Declan McClain is like many 3-year-olds: He loves being with other children and carries around a treasured stuffed animal, a kitty.
Declan is “an enjoyable little boy,” said his grandfather, Arthur McClain of Jeannette. “He just jumps in with the crowd he’s with. He might be little, but he tries to keep up.”
On Friday, Declan was scheduled to get tubes in his ears — a rite of passage for many toddlers. Instead, the Jeannette boy is in critical condition at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, accompanied by his parents, Joshua and Hillary McClain, after falling from a roller coaster at Idlewild Park & SoakZone on Thursday.
Authorities said Declan tumbled from the Ligonier Township park’s wooden Rollo Coaster mid-ride while seated with his 7-year-old brother.
Declan suffered a head injury when he fell about 10 feet from the coaster, sources said.
McClain declined to elaborate on his grandson’s injuries.
Declan and his family have season passes to Idlewild, but his grandfather could not say whether the child had ever before ridden the wooden coaster.
Park officials said the ride is closed while state inspectors and law enforcement investigate.
The Rollo Coaster, which reaches speeds between 10 and 25 mph and peaks at 27 feet off the ground, uses a restraining bar for riders’ safety, said Jeff Croushore, an Idlewild spokesman.
“An incident such as what occurred yesterday has never happened before in the ride’s 78-year history,” Croushore said.
Riders must be 48 inches tall to ride alone, “or 36 inches accompanied by an adult,” Croushore said at a news conference Thursday.
But experts and parents are questioning why 3- and 7-year-old boys were allowed to ride the coaster alone.
“If you’re a small child, you are always to be riding with someone who is 18 years old or considered to be an adult,” said Ken Martin, an amusement ride safety analyst from Richmond, Va., who operates KRM Consulting.
“I’ve been riding roller coasters since I was 5 years old with my parents — always with a parent, always with an adult,” Martin said. “I personally am not aware of any roller coaster that allows that type of scenario.”
Croushore declined to elaborate on why Declan was permitted on the ride without an adult.
David LaTorre of Camp Hill, who visited the park with his family Wednesday, said the coaster’s lack of seat belts raised red flags for him. LaTorre rode the coaster with his 16-year-old son and said he was concerned for his wife and 4-year-old daughter, who rode in another car.
“My wife really had to hold on to her. It’s fast and it’s jarring,” he said. “I couldn’t see how they could operate without seat belts.”
Justin Reiff, who oversees investigations for Reiff & Bily, a Philadelphia law firm that handles amusement ride accident litigation, said ride attendants — typically young, seasonal workers — frequently are at fault.
“They’re given a book and told, ‘Make sure you read it.’ … What happens is they are not familiar with what they should be looking for. They’re not measuring. It’s hot (outside),” Reiff said. “The attendant’s been putting people on the ride. He’s let someone too small on the ride like 100 times before, and then something happens.”
Reiff said experts have found that small children tend to panic once such rides pick up speed.
“They get scared. They move around, looking for a parent,” he said. “They are all over, and the parks never take that into consideration.”
Analysts said Pennsylvania is one of the strictest states in the nation with regard to amusement park inspections.
Rides must be inspected by certified inspectors at the beginning of the season prior to the start of operations and once a month during operations. Amusement park owners can contract with third-party inspectors or have inspectors on staff. Inspection and maintenance reports must be forwarded to the state Department of Agriculture.
Martin, the Virginia-based consultant, said he wasn’t aware of any regulation that would require Idlewild to retrofit the Rollo Coaster, which opened in 1938, with seat belts.
“That coaster was built for this specific park, so there’s not a lot of information out there about it,” he said.
Martin said the manufacturer’s manual for the ride should be on file with the agriculture department and should specify rules for rider size.
“I’m hoping they followed the manufacturer’s manual to the letter,” he said.
National operating and maintenance standards for amusement rides are established by a committee of the American Society of Materials Testing.
Those standards state that signs should be posted as to height requirements as well as obligations and duties of passengers. Ride operators should be given guidelines on special considerations concerning “patron size and special considerations applicable to physically disabled and mentally impaired patrons,” the guidelines state.
The standards hold that “owner operators of an amusement ride or device may deny entry to any person if, in the opinion of the owner/operator the entry may cause above-normal exposure or risk of discomfort or injury to the person denied entry.”