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Tragedy on Big Thunder

Continued coverage of Disneyland’s
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad accident

Updated 7:30 p.m. PDT Friday, September 12, 2003

Updates

Funeral held for victim

Friday, Sept. 12 – Friends and family gathered Friday to remember 22-year-old Marcello Torres, who was killed Sept. 5 in an accident on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Private funeral services were held at Church of the Nativity in Torrance, where more than 100 people heard a service conducted mostly in Spanish.

Victim bled to death

Thursday, Sept. 11 – An Associated Press article reports that the man killed on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad bled to death after being struck in the chest by an unknown object. According to the Orange County Coroner, Marcelo Torres, 22, suffered “blunt force trauma” to the chest that fractured his ribs, leading to laceration of his lungs that caused “severe blood loss.”

Former supervisor blows whistle on Big Thunder

Wednesday, Sept. 10 – Former Big Thunder Mountain maintenance supervisor Bob Klostriech talks to Mouse Tales author David Koenig about his unsuccessful attempts to warn management about the degrading conditions of the ride in this MousePlanet column.

Victim's family hires theme park litigation lawyer

Wednesday, Sept. 10 – The family of the Marcelo Torres has hired lawyer Wylie Aitken of Santa Ana to assist them in their own investigation of the circumstances surrounding the victim's death. Aitken specializes in personal injury cases, but more notably, represented the family of 33-year-old Luan Phi Dawson in the 1998 accident where the Microsoft engineer was killed by when a metal cleat from the Sailing Ship Columbia came loose an struck him. [That case was settled for an undisclosed around, rumored to be upwards of $25 million.]

Investigation progress

Tuesday, Sept. 9 – The Anaheim Police Department forensics team was at the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad over the weekend taking photos and measurements. The team expects their investigation to be completed first, because they are simply trying to rule out criminal intent. They expect to have a preliminary report in a few weeks.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal DOSH) is currently on the scene, as are Disney's investigators. With these organizations, there are three independents investigations going on at the attraction at this time.

Big Thunder Mountain layout

For those who have not ridden Big Thunder Mountain Railroad recently, it might be difficult to envision the various hills and turns in this ride. The following schematic, by “Er The Ic,” should help.

IMAGE: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad schematic drawing.
Layout of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Reprinted by permission from Scott Wegener. For more Disneyland attraction layout drawings, visit his site at Scottware.com.au/theme.

Cynthia Harriss internal e-mail

The following internal corporate e-mail was sent by Disneyland Park President Cynthia Harriss to Disneyland cast members on the day of the accident [This was posted by a reliable cast member at WDWMagic.com]:

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Fellow Cast Members:

Today a terrible tragedy occurred at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad where approximately 10 people were injured and one fatally.

We are shocked and saddened by this heartbreaking incident. Safety is of the utmost importance for us at the Disneyland Resort, making today even more difficult. We have been cooperating with the Anaheim Fire Department, Anaheim Police Department and Division of Occupational Safety and Health in their investigation.

For those of you who may have been directly affected by this incident, we have made counselors immediately available to you. If you need to speak with someone, please call ___________ at (___) ___-____, tell them you are a Disneyland Resort Cast Member and you will get the care you need. We will also have counselors available on-site Saturday, September 6, at the Cast Health Center.

Many of you have asked how you can help. Today, I ask that you join me in extending your hearts and prayers to the individuals and families of those affected by this tragedy. The strength and compassion of this Cast has, and always will, lead us through difficult times.

Cynthia

Big Thunder Update from the September 8 Disneyland Park Update

Monday brings with it the continuation of the official investigation into what went wrong on Friday, causing an accident that injured 10 and killed one. As the rest of this week's update shows, despite the tragedy everything goes on at Disneyland. That is the case here at MousePlanet as well, as we continue our normal publishing schedule. We'll continue to update our coverage of Big Thunder as necessary, so be sure to check out that page for the latest information. In addition to our coverage, we hope to use it as a clearinghouse for all information known about the accident, so if you find any good information sources elsewhere on the Web, please let us know about them.


Big Thunder Trail is closed, and a construction fence stretches to the Mark Twain dock. The chain of wooden benches discourages park visitors from approaching the fence. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Among more petty concerns about the incident is that it takes yet another E-ticket attraction offline. The official determination of what when wrong will probably take weeks, and will most likely require more weeks after that to correct any issues found.

This means that for the rest of September, five E-ticket attractions (more than half) will be down park-wide, and three of the five on the west side will be offline (leaving only Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean). Three of Disneyland's trademark “four mountains” are out of commission, two of them indefinitely. While it seems gauche to think about such things so soon after such a terrible accident, you have to wonder how safety perceptions will combine with too many “closed” signs to affect attendence for the next couple of months. At this point, Haunted Mansion Holiday probably can't open soon enough for Cynthia Harriss and her bosses.


The Big Thunder Mountain station sits empty, while the investigation continues. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Rumors. As the weekend passed, no new official word was given on the cause of the accident, but information did begin to leak out from various sources. Often, they were very different and contradicted each other. The engine was found away from the train, the engine was found with the train; Marcelo Torres was found in his seat, he was found on the tracks; and so on. But the most common elements to the various versions was that the engine portion of the train somehow became separated from the main portion of the ride vehicle (perhaps due to an emergency stop—or e-stop—caused by something else), only to have the engine roll back and impact the stopped rear portion.

MousePlanet has not been able to get adequate confirmation of this to stand behind it, but did pursue technical information about the ride to see if it was feasible. Needless to say, those people most familiar with the current condition of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are not easy to talk to right now. However, MousePlanet was able to confirm with a source familiar with the original version of the ride (opened in 1979) the following information, none of which would seem to contradict the above version of events.

  • The engine portion of the mine train serves no functional purpose, and Big Thunder could continue to operate even if this portion was removed.
  • The engine portion of the vehicle did not have its own anti-rollback devices. Unlike the passenger portion, the engine can roll backwards through stops specifically intended to stop such movement.
  • The engine portion did not have its own mechanisms for braking, meaning a loose engine could roll through the brake stops, even if an e-stop had been triggered.

It is very important to note that these were true when the ride opened 24 years ago; we have not been able to confirm whether any updates affecting these were made over the years.


The exit from Big Thunder Mountain, far right, is blocked off with yellow barrier tape. The folded patio umbrella provides shade for security guards stationed in the area. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Changes? Before we move on the regular portion of the update, there is one other issue we would like to throw out there and see if our readers can settle a point. It is known that at one time the Mark Twain spiel included reference to Big Thunder. As of today, however, this was not part of the spiel. The text was:

Those tracks off the port side lead to Big Thunder Mountain, site of the biggest gold strike in these parts. But in spite of these riches, that mine's been riddled with trouble and strange happenings for as long as I can remember.

But none of the MousePlanet staff members are confident that it was still there recently; it may have been removed quite a while ago. We'd like to hear from any reader with information on this.


Ordinarily, the outdoor dining area at Rancho del Zolaco restaurant in Frontierland has considerable natural light from the portaled adobe walls that separate it from the Big Thunder Mountain attraction. Although the eatery is now open, a new constuction wall now blocks the view of the ride. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Weekend Update

A temporary construction wall was erected on Saturday around Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The Rancho del Zocalo restaurant in Frontierland, which was closed on Friday evening, is now open, as are the Golden Horseshoe Theater, Shooting Gallery and the stores in Frontierland.

On Friday evening, the original rope perimeter that Disneyland erected immediately after the accident on Friday was adjusted to allow the regularly scheduled performances of Fantasmic, a show conducted along the Rivers of America in Frontierland. The perimeter was pushed back to open the bottleneck area near the Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as the connecting walkway between Frontierland to the Central Plaza hub, past the Shooting Gallery.

The wall that has replaced the perimeter rope is a typical Disneyland construction wall, although it looks as if it was put up in a rush.

Big Thunder Trail is closed at the Fantasyland gate (except for the Big Thunder Ranch special event area). The construction wall extends to the Mark Twain dock.

Closed

  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
  • Big Thunder Trail, at the Fantasyland gate
  • Conestoga french fry cart

Open

  • Mark Twain dock (the riverboats are running)
  • Tom Sawyer Island
  • Canoes
  • Tom Sawyer Island rafts
  • Rancho del Zocalo
  • Rancho del Zocalo restrooms
  • Shooting Gallery
  • Golden Horseshoe Theater
  • Stores in Frontierland
  • All Frontierland entertainment, including Fantasmic and Laughing Stock.

Big Thunder suddenly went into suspended animation—while the version in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom has already been down for a regularly scheduled rehab through November 22, Japanese newspaper giant Mainichi Shimbun (“The Daily Newspaper”) reports that Tokyo Disneyland officials have shut their own attraction down pending their own thorough safety inspections.

As of Monday morning, both the Paris and Tokyo attractions are open. The Florida version is still in regularly scheduled rehab.


Acknowledgements

Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, Andrew Rich, Karl Buiter, Scott Wegener.

Text © 2003 MousePlanet, Inc., all rights reserved.
ssi_btmrr-side

BTMRR COVERAGE

MousePlanet provides detailed coverage about the accident history of Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster. The main page with the most recent updates is available here.

JULY 2004 ACCIDENT

The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad experienced an accident at approximately 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 8, 2004. Read our original breaking-news coverage of this accident here.

APRIL 2004 ACCIDENT

The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad experienced an emergency stop on Saturday, April 3, 2004, less than a week after it reopened from the 2003 accident. No injuries were reported for this accident. Read our coverage of this accident here.

SEPT 2003 ACCIDENT

A locomotive on the Big Thunder Mountail Railroad in Disneyland's Frontierland broke loose at approximately 11:20 a.m. on Friday, September 5, killing 1 man and injuring 10 others.

• Our main page about the accident (9/13/01).
• Our extensive analysis about the cause of the accident based on the DOSH final report (12/1/03).
• Mouse Tales columnist David Koenig reports on a ex-supervisor who blows the whistle on the ride (9/10/03)
• Our Park Update coverage as Big Thunder reopens in March 2004 (3/15/04)
Media coverage and analysis of accident (9/03)
Coverage of Eisner and Rasulo press conference on day of accident (9/5/03).
Breaking news coverage as events unfolded on Friday afternoon (9/5/03).


• The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad locomotive broke loose from the rest of the train at 11:20 a.m. on Friday, September 5, 2003.

• Single fatality: Marcelo Torres (22) from Gardena, California, of undisclosed causes.

• 10 injured victims, including the following, who were transported to the University of California Irvine Medical Center:

  • Vicente Gutierrez (22) from Wilmington, California, suffered facial injuries, a broken collarbone and cracked ribs.
  • William (47) and his wife Teresa (37) Smith, from North Hills, California, suffered from bruises.
  • Debra (44), her son Christopher (15), and her nephew Adrian (9), from San Diego, suffered from bruises.

BTMRR BASICS

• Designed and manufactured by: WED/Walt Disney Imagineering

• Ride type: “Mine train” type roller coaster

• Opened: September 2, 1979

• Maximum height: 104 feet at the top of Big Thunder Peak

• Maximum capacity: 32

• Height requirement: 40 inches tall (3 feet 4 inches) [correction]

• Safety restraint: Single bench-wide lap bar (bench sits two)

• Speed: 28 miles per hour

• Disneyland's BTMRR was created in-house by Disney Imagineers. The WDW version was built in 1980. The Disneyland Paris version was built in 1992.

INTERACT

Discuss this incident on our MousePad discussion board.

Submit info: We update this page as news becomes available. If you have some news to share, contact Lani Teshima.

Comments? If you have some comments about the accident or about our coverage, please write to our MousePlanet Mailbag.

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