A lot of people may see former Big Thunder Mountain Railroad maintenance supervisor Bob Klostriech as an opportunist. Say he's some disgruntled has-been just trying to get in a few last digs at the company that sent him packing after 23 years. If you didn't know better, his gripesaired in interviews on Monday's TV news and in Saturday's Los Angeles Timesmight be misinterpreted as those of a crotchety old-timer looking for payback.
In truth, for the last five years, Klostriech has been predicting neglected maintenance would cause major catastrophes at Disneyland. Unfortunately, it took last Friday's tragedy on Big Thunder for anyone to listen.
Certainly, his former bosses weren't interested when Klostriech first came to them with his fears in 1997. He later documented his concerns in a memo to his higher-ups. But that he would create a paper trail if something did go wrong infuriated them, Klostriech claims, and eventually cost him his job. He later filed a whistleblower lawsuit, but lost. That didn't sway his determination to get Disney to change its practices. They're going to hurt a guest, he told me in 1998, and I can't bury my head.
In April 1998, he told me to expect the worst. He foresaw a tragic guest accident within a year courtesy of Disney's cutbacks-at-any-cost mentality. I nodded, to humor him. Until that time, every attraction-related fatality at a Disney theme park had been because the victim was doing something he or she shouldn't have been. To that time, between the four domestic Disney parks, that was a cumulative 95 years of safe operation.
Eerily, less than eight months later, a 33-year-old tourist from Washington State was killed while waiting in line to ride the Sailing Ship Columbia. To be fair, we still don't know the cause of the September 5 accident on Big Thunder. Here's what we do know: the lead engine car broke free from the train of passenger cars. Several people in the front passenger car were injured, most significantly the two riders in the front seat. They apparently suffered intense impact with unidentified object(s), possibly part of the fiberglass engine car or the coupling system.
Certainly, it could have been an unavoidable freak accident, perhaps attributable to a mechanical defect that was impossible to detect.
Nonetheless, Klostriech argues there are too many similarities to the August 2000 Space Mountain derailment that he blames on an over-worn connector. And, he says, the cutbacks in maintenance have been well documented. [For the full story on the disintegration of Disney's Facilities division, see More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland. But, in brief, in the mid-1990s, as the new attractions grew more complex and existing rides aged, maintenance budgets and staff size decreased. Older, more experienced workers were disproportionately eliminated. And the majority of those who remained were transferred to graveyard shift, helping to create a demoralized, unmotivated workforce.]
Remember, this isn't Wednesday morning quarterbacking. Five years ago, Klostriech and at least two other coaster mechanics specifically pointed to Big Thunder as an area of primary concern.
Said one mechanic: On Big Thunder, over the years, we developed time schedules for the replacement of axles, etc., so you replace it before it breaks down. They're now (in spring of 1998) one year behind on preventive maintenance. You run it 'til it falls apart.
He later noted: The train has gone off the track a couple of timesat least once from the separation of a tow bar (the link between the cars). We had to get a crane to get a car. People were hurt, but not critically.
Another Facilities old-timer, who retired in the mid-1990s, shared: I would not ride Big Thunder while I was at the park for about the last 10 years. I felt it had too much torque, which put excessive strain and stress on the track and the tow bars. Just my feeling, plus what I heard from some of the mechanics.
Klostriech himself revealed: We've had trains come apart over the years. We've had spindles break, an axle break, a bogey break. So everything's been upgraded over the years. But, with spottier maintenance, he warned, Let's see what happens when somebody gets seriously hurt. I'm going to be the first one who puts them in jail."
So here we are five years and several high-profile tragedies later. This past weekend, I again spoke with the above-quoted sources as well as other concerned old-timers. No one feels vindicated. No, they're all just sad. Yet, perhaps more telling, no one is surprised.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.