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Looking for answers when theme park rides fail

By Robert Niles
Published: July 7, 2010 at 9:55 PM
Okay, this story is getting bizarre.

Last week in the news round-up, I linked to the story from China about an accident at a space-themed centrifuge ride that claimed the lives of six theme park visitors. This week, Chinese authorities have "detained" 11 park maintenance and operations workers, as part of the investigation.

I don't know what, specifically, is meant by "detained" in China - whether that means simply that the workers were held for a few hours for questioning, or that they are being jailed until the investigation's complete. Nor is the Shanghai news report clear on exactly which authorities were doing the detaining.

The investigation has ruled out sabotage, and now is focusing on a mechanical failure. I've not been to China and, obviously, never been on this ride. But from the reported descriptions, it sounds something like Epcot's Mission: Space, a spinning space-themed ride where visitors ride in separate capsules. Apparently, something broke on the Chinese ride, one unit stopped and others crashed into it, ejecting some riders and crushing others. Horrible.

It's hard for me to imagine how a modern amusement ride could fail so spectacularly and tragically, not with the industry knowledge that is available on how to run such a ride safely, and reliably so. Since this ride did fail, it appears that somewhere along the line, either that knowledge either wasn't passed along to the people in position to implement it or the commitment to implement that knowledge was not instilled among enough of this park's employees. Ultimately, those are management failures, too.

Thoughts?

Readers' Opinions

From 99.236.171.124 on July 7, 2010 at 10:19 PM
Wondering if the workers don't take the safety percautions seriously, as in they think that since technology has come so far, they really don't have to be so cautious because they think the ride is built flawlessly, but we are human and NOTHING is perfect. Boredom as in if the workers inspect the ride each morning before opening they have to do the full inspection, but after doing that for many years and not finding a problem that could result in laziness, as in half fast inspections assuming "well this part works which usually means that the rest will work" and missing a small problem that will eventually become a big problem. I am just thinking that this is the case for some employees the china park and not every park in the world. I am sorry if this doesn't make sense.
From Anthony Murphy on July 7, 2010 at 10:20 PM
Maybe I am the only one that read it as this, but Mission Space did NOT crash, but rather the ride in China.

I think it is up to the park for responsibility, but I repeat: Mission Space did not fail or has failed in the past when individuals were injured.

From Joshua Counsil on July 7, 2010 at 11:38 PM
Anthony -
He was merely comparing the ride experience, not history, to Mission: Space.

I thought the same thing, Robert. I know China is often stereotyped as a cheap goods manufacturer, and in some ways that's true. But when it comes to thrill rides or other pieces of technology involving safety factors, China is, at the very least, on par with most industrial countries.

You have to wonder what happened.

From James Koehl on July 8, 2010 at 5:21 AM
So often you hear on the news about bribbery, corruption, etc. in China. Poisons added to pet food products; their mine safety record is among the worst in the world. Remember the old joke about a shipment of lead from China being reject at an American port because it was found to be contaminated with toys? Remember the earthquake just before the Beijing Olympics? There is an entire city- not building, but city- walled off because the entire city collapsed and so many thousands died they could never get them all out. The buildings were built so shodily, so sub-standard because their inspectors either didn't do their jobs or were paid enough that they wouldn't do their jobs. Am I saying that poor inspection practices definitely caused this tragedy? No. Will I be surprised if they find out that it was caused by poor maintenance and/or poor inspection practices? No.
From Steve Alcorn on July 8, 2010 at 7:38 AM
I got the impression from the sketchy news reports that the whole centrifuge tipped over and capsules successively smashed into the ground as it came to a stop. It was also reported that this is the park's only ride that was built by local Chinese vendors. All the others were made by international ride manufacturers.
From Steve Alcorn on July 8, 2010 at 7:59 AM
Updated explanation from this morning's news: "A new breakthrough in the investigation of last week’s deadly theme park accident in Shenzhen reveals that one of the ride’s four-person compartments broke off from the ride’s axis at high-speed and smashed to the ground before being struck by three of the other carts. The information is the first official word as to the cause of the stunning crash that had baffled experts."

This is actually a common failure mode for centrifuges. Mechanical materials stress is a huge concern because of the high g forces exerted on very heavy loads. On a coaster you have the high g's, but not for such a sustained period, and on a much lighter load.

From Pyra Dong on July 8, 2010 at 8:24 AM
Either way Steve, even if compartments breaking off from the centrifuge-like ride is fairly common... this incident was not.

This is a very, freaky accident and I think it will affect the attendance of theme park goers planning on visiting parks in China. Although China does have the reputation for being... well... "It's made in China, whatdaya expect?"
when it comes to attractions that attract international visitors, then China can be pretty high quality-- like I said, very, freaky accident.

I wonder if this is one of those dinky little theme parks (which don't get as much maintenance) or a more renowned Chinese theme park that attracts lots of international visitors like Disney Shanghai (which has a higher reputation to uphold)

From Daniel Etcheberry on July 8, 2010 at 8:27 AM
I would never ride a centrifuge unless it is from Disney or Universal. Much less if it is in China (unless if it were located in Disneyland Hong Kong).
From 24.90.249.214 on July 8, 2010 at 8:06 PM
Un fair that the maintanence workers were or are detained. a very bizzar accident Iam not making any judgments against anyone or playing the blame game. they need to actualy DETERMINE WHAT CAUSED IT BEFORE I BLAME ANYONE. hope they find the cause
From 198.3.68.21 on July 10, 2010 at 2:47 PM
Before anyone starts worrying about 'Mission Space', just take a look at the way that ride is built. I love that particular ride and don't hesitate when I get the chance.
From Matt Bolick on July 11, 2010 at 3:16 PM
Having been to China many times for work and having visited several amusement parks and zoos throughout the country I can definitely attest to the fact that the institutional culture there is much different than it is in western parks. Safety generally takes a back seat to the bottom line and catastrophic failures are accepted as part of the cost of doing business. There isn't a lot of corporate responsibility with things like amusement park rides and it's generally considered that the riders are taking an inherent risk in riding.

The 11 workers that have been detained are another story. If this is a high enough profile event they could be made an example of. A death sentence wouldn't be out of the ordinary for anyone made responsible for something like this.

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