Knott's incident raises questions about ride evacuation procedures

December 31, 2016, 11:47 AM · Local firefighters last night evacuated 21 people from the Sky Cabin ride at Knott's Berry Farm, eight hours after the ride malfunctioned, trapping visitors in the cabin 125 feet above ground.

We do not routinely cover ride evacuations here on Theme Park Insider. From personal experience working as an attractions operator at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, plus my years of experience covering the industry, I know that ride evacuations happen almost daily in theme parks. Evacuations almost never result in injury, and parks work to keep visitors' inconvenience to a minimum. Heck, some people even brag about being evacuated from certain rides, as it allows them a rare, "backstage" look at the ride and its operation.

While no one was injured in yesterday's incident at Knott's Berry Farm, no one could say that the inconvenience was minimal. Riders were trapped on the attraction for eight hours — by any standard an unacceptable length of time. And evacuation itself was harrowing — requiring local firefighters to lower each individual via a rope from the cabin to the ground.

In 2013, Knott's removed its 300-foot Windseeker swing ride after two incidents the year before when riders were trapped in the air for more than three hours. The state's occupational safety agency, CalOSHA, ordered the ride closed, then later determined that the ladder system that Knott's installed after the incident did not meet state standards. At that point, Knott's parent Cedar Fair decided to remove the attraction and send it to World of Fun in Missouri, where the ladder did meet that state's safety standards.

California has the toughest ride inspection and safety standards in the nation, and Knott's Sky Cabin has been operating safely for decades, though it has been closed for long stretches since debuting in 1976. But when rides malfunction or guests interrupt normal operation, visitors should be able to be evacuated from an attraction safely in a timely manner. Eight hours is way too long to wait.

And evacuations should not require significant outside assistance, either. Calling the fire department is a legal requirement in many jurisdictions when people are to be evacuated from elevators or other elevated apparatus. But parks shouldn't lack evacuation procedures so that firefighters are left to figure out how to get people down on their own, especially with something like the rope system that had to be used last night. Knott's operators and maintenance personnel tried for three hours to lower the cabin before calling in the fire department.

Ultimately, designing a ride also requires anticipating every possible way that something really can go terribly wrong, and providing a counter measure for that situation. That's why so many attractions have complicated ride systems with backup checks and redundancies built in. And why operators are trained in evacuation procedures.

But as much as designers and parks try to anticipate every possible problem, sometimes one happens that leaves the park without a planned solution. That's what happened at Knott's yesterday.

Knott's Sky Cabin will remain closed during an investigation into what went wrong. And the ride likely will remain closed after that, until CalOSHA is satisfied that Knott's has implemented a more effective evacuation procedure for the ride.

Meanwhile, every park with a tall attraction such as the Sky Cabin needs to be asking, "could this happen to us?" And if it could, what are they going to do about it?

Replies (18)

December 31, 2016 at 12:20 PM · After the death at Australia's Dreamworld the State government recognised that theme parks being seen as having a "safety issue" would be disastrous to the economy, so every theme park in the state was hit with a complete safety audit systematically checking every ride in every park, there's three parks that pass for "A list" parks on the Australian scale, two water parks, and a couple of B-listers, so this was no small task.

Overkill, perhaps. But when it comes to an activity that seems dangerous (even though you, I, and everyone else who visits this site knows its not) a grand public reassuring action (okay, maybe not as grand as dreamworld had) is whats needed.

December 31, 2016 at 1:01 PM · I often wondered what would happen if people got stuck on Disneyland or Disney World's Monorail. Can you shed some light on that?
December 31, 2016 at 1:13 PM · I didn't realize that they pulled windseeker from knotts. I rode that one there before I rode it at my home park of carowinds.

I agree. Ride evacuations are a fact of life. 8 hours is excessive. I'd be super pissed if I was stuck at the top of a ride for the entire day. The worst I've encountered was doing a behind the scenes rollercoaster tour at Busch gardens williamsburg and half the group got stuck at the top of Griffon because the elevator broke. It kind of screwed up the tour, but not really. They just did the tour separately for the two groups after about 45 minutes delay while they tried to get the first group down. They made it up to us by letting the people who weren't stuck go into the show building for verbolten that had opened the day before. Since it was before the park was open, all the lights were on so you could see everything. They wouldn't let us take any photos, though. :(

Plus, they gave us a front of line pass for every big coaster in the park (since my wife is in a wheelchair and can't do the rides, they gave her a free meal.) and then a week later they mailed us a coupon for a free replacement tour any time before the end of the season. I never did get to take them up on that because I just don't get that way very often.

Sure I missed out on the view from the top of Griffon, but they responded quickly and made it right for the inconvenience. (and they finally got the people down from the top of griffon after about an hour and 10 minutes. They could have just walked them down the steps, but they didn't want to take the chance someone would slip so they waited on the elevator.

December 31, 2016 at 2:29 PM · @Disfan A few incidents have happened involving the monorails. At Disney World, it was once stopped due to a mechanical issue and people were stuck in there for 2 hours. At Disneyland, a man attempting to sneak in the park was struck by the Monorail and killed
December 31, 2016 at 2:46 PM · Sound like I should expect a new ride at my home park (Worlds of Fun) in the next couple of years.
December 31, 2016 at 3:13 PM · While I certainly agree that 8 hours is way too long for everyone to be removed from a malfunctioning ride, I do think it is important to get all the facts straight before judging the situation. Consider the following:

-The Sky Cabin incident was not a normal breakdown, it was a major mechanical malfunction. Think of this more like the SFGAm Demon incident (where an axle broke and stalled the train at the top of a loop) rather than something like a bad sensor downing the ride. As a result, I would file this one under "rescue operation" rather than "ride evacuation."
-The park spent 2-3 hours attempting to evacuate the ride using standard procedures, and only called in the fire department when it was determined this would be impossible.
-The fire department had trained for this specific scenario and had an action plan in place should the default rescue option (ladder rescue) be unfeasible. What was seen was more like a plan G, and was pretty much the last option before bringing in a helicopter.
-At no point during the entire incident was there any danger to riders. Had there been, they probably would have called in a helicopter pretty quickly.

Theme park attractions are extraordinarily safe, but it is impossible to have a perfect solution to 100% of the things that could occur. 99+% of the time, if a ride goes down it will function as designed and evacuation will be complete in 45-60 minutes (or less). But, in the very small number of cases where something goes really wrong, this may not be possible. In those cases, the safest option is the right way to go, even if it is not the speediest. The only question I think needs answered is this: How long should a park be given to evacuate a ride before calling in the fire department for a rescue?

December 31, 2016 at 3:48 PM · "The Sky Cabin incident was not a normal breakdown, it was a major mechanical malfunction."

Hmmm. While I think you're might have reason to think this way, I would prefer to consider more serious implications. Most breakdowns are false alarms and should be easily resumed. This recent Sky Cabin incident should be no exception to the evacuation procedures for what's the point of evacuation procedures if not for a major mechanical catastrophic failure. Knott's evacuation procedures wasn't comprehensive enough for it attempted to get the Sky Cabin down. There was no ladder or anything else. That's why the firefighters were called in. This attraction is very old so it might be too late or costly to remedy the ride with modern rescue features. Heck, even Windseeker was not up to California standards. No wonder Disney doesn't bother with such rides.

December 31, 2016 at 6:26 PM · I'm wondering what practical difference there would be between a sensor malfunction an an axle in this scenario - presuming a faulty sensor couldn't just be overridden to allow for the ride to terminate normally.

Strikes me that if its stuck at the top, its stuck, and I can't see how why its stuck would drastically effect your evacuation plan...

December 31, 2016 at 7:06 PM · As this ride is now over 40 years old, meeting California's current safety standards is probably very difficult if not impossible so in all likelihood it will probably be removed and relocated if possible.

December 31, 2016 at 8:39 PM · Didn't this happen at Sea World San Diego not too long ago? Hershey Park too?

The firefighters had to get up there somehow. Isn't there a ladder system built into the tower? It seems that an evacuation could be done with some sort of safety harness system on a ladder built into the tower.

December 31, 2016 at 11:26 PM · All rides have the ability to go into full manual mode. In this mode, the operator has 100% control over every individual component of the ride. Even if the computer detects a problem, if the operator tells it to do something it will do it. For obvious reasons, full manual mode is generally only used when absolutely necessary, as mistakes can be devastating (for example, the Smiler incident). For a ride like the Sky Cabin, however, manual mode is not a safety hazard as there is no chance of a collision.

In full manual mode on an observation tower, an operator should be able to go into the motor room and operate the motor directly to lower the cabin. This is how the cabin is parked at night (many observation towers park at the top of the tower), and on rides without an on-board operator the ride is typically operated from here. Some rides also have the ability to winch the cabin up or down using other means in case the motor breaks or there is a loss of power.

The big unknown in this particular incident is what happened to make it impossible to manually lower the cabin. As the park tried for several hours to manually lower it and reportedly tried different methods, it is clear that something major happened to prevent all normal evacuation procedures. As a result, they went to the more extreme measures necessary to remove the riders (in this case, get onto the cabin by repelling from the top of the tower and then lower passengers to the ground one by one). This was not something made up on the fly, it was a contingency plan in the event of an incident like this. However, it is unfair to consider this a normal evacuation method and compare it to something like evacuating Big Thunder Mountain Railroad after a sensor fault downs the ride. This is certainly not the first time the ride has been stranded, just the first time such measures were necessary to rescue guests.

As for the fate of the Sky Cabin, I do not expect it to reopen unless Knott's has Intamin come in and completely refurbish the attraction to get everything up to current code. The ride was originally slated to be removed when Windseeker was announced, but was saved to avoid losing yet another family ride. However, due to the likely PR fallout from this (especially if a lawsuit occurs) and the low popularity of the attraction, I am not sure it is worth keeping at this point. The ride has been removed from the park's website, though that could simply mean an indefinite closure rather than a permanent one.

January 1, 2017 at 11:02 AM · I should hope there wont be a lawsuit. Whilst its inconvenient to be stuck up there, I think most if not all riders would struggle to show any significant damages.

But I know, its America, lawsuit happy and all that...

January 1, 2017 at 4:12 PM · Chad H, Can you imagine a mechanical fault like this on Dreamworld's Giant drop? Yikes!! I'm not sure if it has reopened yet after the TRR tragedy. It's a tough time for Dreamworld. Glad Knott's emergency didn't have anyone in harms way!
January 1, 2017 at 4:22 PM · @Chad H, I'm not normally one for frivolous lawsuits, but I do wonder how many people who were trapped in a cabin for 8 hours started to go hungry or had to go to the bathroom, but couldn't do so for obvious reasons. While I don't know what Knott's did to compensate the guests, a lawsuit does not seem entirely ridiculous in this situation.
January 1, 2017 at 8:25 PM · There is always a bit of risk when you let yourself get strapped into something that moves fast, or goes high, or swings your body around in unusual ways. But rides are still much safer than (for instance) the highways people take to get to the park.
January 3, 2017 at 2:26 AM · I can answer the monorail question. They have a monorail tow truck positioned off to the side of the track that they can put on the track and it can go pull the monorail to a station. It's very slow, though. If you google it, you can find photos of it. I have some I took from last year when they were using it as a truck to carry workers out to work on some track above EPCOT, but I don't have the photos with me to share.
January 3, 2017 at 5:52 AM · To use a comparatible attraction, Six Flags Great America has Sky Trek Tower which appears to be nearly identical to Knott's Sky Cabin.

Last time it broke down, it was 2 hours.

January 3, 2017 at 11:25 AM · I got stuck on Hersheypark's Kissing Tower several years ago. From what I see, it's along the same design as the Sky Tower. The Kissing Tower's normal operation was to ascend to the top, then it drops a few feet before parking in place for 3 full rotations. After the 3rd rotation, it begins to descend while continuing its rotation until it parks at the loading dock.

The day I was on it, it did its 3 rotations and began to descend. Then it lurched to a halt around a 1/4 of the way from the top. It continued to rotate but did not lower. I had ridden it enough to know this wasn't normal but no one else on board seemed to notice. When they turned off the on board narration, people started to get edgy. Finally the ride op that was on board the cabin announced that the ride was experiencing technical difficulties. Suddenly it was a bunch of murmurs and mumbles with exception of very young children outright asking "are we gonna be up here forever!?" Parents aren't quite sure how to answer that.

This was the days before cell phones and I was supposed to meet my party within a half hour but figured I had plenty to time to ride the tower once more before we left. They would have had no idea I was stranded 210 feet in the air! Needless to say, panic set in. The ride op on board was just a high school girl and had no idea what has going on nor how to handle it. Kids started was scary! No, we were not in any direct danger but the fear of the unknown can eat you alive. If I would have had to descend from the tower on a rope, there would have been a fatality! My heart would have exploded.

After 20 minutes, it started to lower as it normally did. Never had I felt such relief! That was almost 30 years ago and though the tower still remains in operation, I have NEVER gotten back on it or any like it anywhere else in the world. I really enjoyed the tower but now I don't trust it. 8 hours!?!?! Not a snowballs chance I'd have lasted that long!

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