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Accident on Big Thunder

Third accident in 10 months for Frontierland coaster

Originally published in our Park Updates: Disneyland for July 12–18, 2004

For the third time in 10 months, Disneyland's popular Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster ride made news last week, when one train returning to the platform collided with another train that had loaded and was waiting to depart. The accident occurred around about 5:05 p.m. last Thursday. A family from Canada, consisting of 10-year-old boy, a 44-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man complained of back and neck pain, and were transported to Western Medical Center–Anaheim, where they were treated and released that night.

In addition, MousePlanet has learned that at least one other individual involved in the accident has sought medical treatment in the days following the accident.


An investigator looks at the spacing between the second and third passenger cars. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The ride was closed immediately after the accident, and DOSH investigators arrived shortly after 7:00. Disney cast members and security guards formed a ring around the perimeter of the Big Thunder attraction area, telling visitors, “The ride is closed. Keep moving.” Disney also closed a portion of the seating area of the Rancho Del Zocalo restaurant in Frontierland, from which the accident site was visible.


This train bumped into another train as it headed into the right “spur” of the station. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

In an official statement, Disneyland spokesman Bob Tucker said, “Late this afternoon two cars bumped into one another. In an abundance of caution, the attraction is closed. DOSH (the Division of Occupational Safety and Health) has been notified.” Tucker said that Disney was working with DOSH to investigate the incident, and did not know when the ride would reopen.

A park visitor who claimed to be present at the attraction when the accident occurred and who read media reports of the accident, emphatically told MousePlanet that it was not a bump. “A bump, my a**! It was a full-on slam," the visitor said.


Four investigators stand around the train. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

According to both this eyewitness account and a source familiar with the previous Big Thunder Mountain accidents, this latest incident occurred when one train (#2), directed to the right side of the loading platform, struck another train (#1) still in the station.

The eyewitness notes that immediately before train #2 left the platform, ride operators announced over the speakers at the attraction platform area that five trains were now running on the track. This would have taken the ride to its maximum train capacity. This appears to confirm another report that the number of trains in use had just changed.

When both sides of the loading platform are in use, the switch changes after each train, meaning that if five trains are in use, a train will return to the opposite side of the loading platform from which it departed. When four trains are in use, they would return to the same side.

According to the eyewitness, train #2 departed from the right side and returned to that same side. This may indicate that whatever process triggers the change from operating for four trains to five was not done properly. MousePlanet has been unable to learn what this process is, and whether it is automated or manual. However, a source tells us that preliminary internal accident reports cite human error as the cause of the accident.


This track switch sends trains either to the right or the left spur as they enter the station.

Big Thunder cast members responded immediately to the accident, maintaining order throughout the incident. Guests seated in the fully loaded train #1 did not appear to be injured, and were immediately evacuated out of the attraction, as were those in the queue. Guests in train #2 were told to remain in their seats, including one guest who noticed his car was off the tracks and initially tried to exit. All complied until they were escorted out of the train.

DOSH representative Dean Fryer told MousePlanet that the ride is expected remain closed for at least a few weeks while DOSH completes its investigation of the accident. The DOSH investigation is expected to include a mechanical inspection of the ride, a review of the training and proceedures in place at the attraction, and interviews with cast members and witnesses.

When the investigation is complete, DOSH will release a report of its findings, and list any corrective action Disney may need to take. Fryer said that DOSH will not authorize the ride to open until it is satisfied that the ride is safe to operate.

Last September, Marcelo Torres of Gardena was killed and 10 other riders injured when the front portion of the train derailed, causing the front passenger car to collide with the train's locomotive. DOSH cited improper installation of a guide wheel in that accident, and required Disney to retrain its cast members before the ride could reopen.


At Rancho Del Zocalo, the two rows of tables nearest Big Thunder were blocked off after the accident. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Less than a week after the ride reopened in March, two empty trains collided during a reset operation. There were no injuries, and the ride reopened the next day. According to the DOSH report, the collision was caused specifically by operator error.


One of the trains involved in the accident is clearly visible from the Rancho Del Zocalo restaurant in Frontierland. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The most recent accident elicited various responses from our readers:

“I am beginning to think Magic Mountain's coasters are safer than Big Thunder!”

“I mean sure, accidents happen but for Pete's sake, this is the third accident this particular ride has had in the past year.”

“Enough is enough!”

“Three accidents in so short of a time is just unexcusable; I don't think even Magic Mountain can boast that kind of dubious record for one of their rides.”


An empty train sits on the left side of the Big Thunder station. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Other readers urged restraint until the DOSH report was completed:

“It is sad that another accident has occured with this attraction. But I'd like to caution people not to overreact.”

“Let them sort out the who-what-where-when-why and how of what happened, and if they can come up with a way to solve it permanently before people start screaming for the ride to be closed permanently.”


The ride's queue may be empty for quite a few weeks, pending the results of the DOSH investigation. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Regardless of the DOSH findings, several readers noted that the recurring publicity over this ride's troubles may cast a shadow over Disneyland's upcoming 50th anniversary celebration. At least three readers said that they were considering postponing or cancelling their trips to Disneyland in the aftermath of this latest accident.

At Disneyland on Saturday, response from park visitors to the closed attraction included confusion and hostility. A family vacationing from Arizona, who were not aware of the most recent accident, questioned the cast member station at the ride's entrance, asking, “We thought this reopened months ago!”


After the accident, cast members stand at the entrance and tell park guests that the ride is closed for the rest of the night. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Other visitors walked past the closed ride, saying, “Oh yeah, someone else died there yesterday,” and “Look, this one's closed, too!” A father and his son stood along a fence outside the ride, trying to determine exactly where the accident had occured.

One angry man confronted a Thunder Mountain cast member, shouting “Two times in two years—you people better get your act together!” Cast members stationed around the ride said that they had been yelled and cursed at. One ride operator looked towards the empty station, and said “I'd rather be in there than out here.”


Coverage by:

Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, Tony Phoenix, Lani Teshima, Karl Buiter.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact us here.

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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