Local theme park visitors reflect on recent tragedies

6:21 PM, Jul 22, 2013   |    comments
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File photo of the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
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Tampa, FL -- The theme park business is huge in our region so when a deadly accident took place this past week in Arlington, Texas it quickly caught the attention of thrill-seekers here.

Is there reason for concern? Are these rides safe?

Serious injuries and deaths are very rare in the theme park industry.

But an incident at Cedar Point in Ohio left seven people hurt over the weekend. And Friday, a roller coaster accident killed a Dallas woman.

There are about four deaths attributed to roller coasters per year worldwide.

Still, it may surprise you how little government oversight there is, which makes people that much more nervous when something like this happens.

"We need to have better inspections," said Tom Babcock. He and his sons were heading for Busch Gardens on Monday.

But Babcock's older boy Justin, 13, says it'll be a while before he gets back on any roller coasters. He was nervous after hearing about the deadly coaster accident at Six Flags in Arlington, Texas.

"Anything can happen and if you take that chance, it might happen to me," said Justin.

Rosy Esparza was killed when she flew off the Texas Giant.

At least one witness says the Dallas mother complained she didn't feel right about her safety restraint, but that a ride operator told her it was okay.

"And that when it drops to come down, that's when it released, and she just tumbled," said witness Carmen Brown.

With the Bay area home to Busch Gardens and Legoland and Orlando just a short drive away, theme park visits are common, and their safety is a top concern.

The most recent industry figures from the National Safety Council show accidents are rare. About 1,300 injuries per year.

That's just one in every 24 million visitors at U.S. permanently located parks.

About four percent of those injuries are considered serious, and close to a third of them are from roller coasters.

"It may happen. It's like the lottery. Hopefully you're not gonna pick that unlucky number," said Tom Babcock.

Critics think injury rates are likely under-reported because the theme park industry is entrusted to regulated, inspect and even investigate itself.

"There's nothing in Texas or many other states that make them have to release that information," said industry consultant Kenneth Martin.

In fact, Florida law allows any theme park with a thousand or more workers to handle its own investigations and inspections.

That includes Bush Gardens, Legoland, and virtually all the big Orlando theme parks.

At Busch Gardens, a spokesman told 10 News the safety of its guests, animals and staff are their highest priority, and that rides are inspected daily to ensure they meet all regulations.

But some visitors like Tom Babcock say they might prefer independent inspections.

"I think that's a conflict of interest. I think we should have the state involved with inspecting or private firms, separate from the park, itself inspecting things like that. I think you'll get better safety," said Babcock.

But industry watchers say the state just doesn't have the resources it would take to have inspectors checking all the rides at Florida theme parks every day.

They also concede theme parks have a financial interest in making sure their rides are safe if they expect to stay in business.

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