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December 19, 2008

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GBP 250k fine after teenager plummets from rollercoaster

A 16-year-old girl plunged 100ft to her death after she was thrown out of a high-speed theme-park ride.

Pontypool teenager, Hayley Williams, fell 100ft from the Hydro Ride at the theme park in Pembrokeshire on 15 April 2004. CCTV footage viewed in the subsequent HSE investigation revealed repeated failure by staff to check that seatbelts and lap restraints were in fastened securely.

Oakwood Leisure Ltd was fined £250,000 plus £80,000 costs on 18 December after admitting to a breach of s3(1) of the HSWA 1974 for failing to ensure the safety of the public. The firm had pleaded guilty at a hearing before Haverfordwest magistrates during the summer.

HSE inspector Phil Nicolle told SHP that the water ride consisted of a 24-seat boat. Each seat featured an aeroplane-style lap belt and a T-bar restraint, which passengers pulled forward between their legs, with the cross-section sitting across their pelvis. The system was operated hydraulically, which allowed it be “infinitely flexible” and adjustable, but it would stop wherever the passenger left it.

As the passengers were loaded into the ride, they were played a recorded tape message instructing them to fasten their seatbelts but to leave the bar alone for staff to check. Describing what the protocol should have been, Inspector Nicolle said: “Staff were meant to check that the lap belts were in place by pulling down on the loose tag of the belt. They were then required to push the bar down as far as they could and give it a tug backwards to make sure it was in place. On the day in question, those checks weren’t made at all on Hayley William’s restraints.”

The ride started up by gradually climbing up a straight chain lift before moving round a semi-circular track, approaching a 100-feet near-vertical drop. It was at the point that the ride began its descent that Hayley was ejected from it. She plunged to the ground, striking a 10-year-old boy, Martin Rothwell, who was sitting in the seat in front. Hayley was taken to hospital where she died of internal injuries, while Martin was treated for head injuries.

Seven days of footage from CCTV cameras, which had been installed by management to verify complaints made by members of the public, or claims of lost belongings, was seized by investigators. The images not only showed that Hayley’s lap restraint was not fixed over her lap but they proved that staff had repeatedly failed to check passengers’ safety before the ride commenced.

Analysis of the video found an average of 29 per cent of more than 4000 people who used the ride over the seven days had not been safety-checked. On the day of the incident, 88 per cent of all passengers were not checked to see that the ride’s restraints were properly secure.

Inspector Nicolle said: “There was no issue on the day in relation to the mechanical aspects of the ride.” He added that, following an incident in the United States, the ride’s manufacturer had been in correspondence with the theme-park operator and had “made it very clear that physical checking was paramount to the safety of the ride”.

Sentencing the company at Swansea Crown Court, the judge said: “This was a failure on a massive scale, amounting to a grave breach of ensuring the public were not exposed to risks to their safety.”

The new owner of Oakwood Theme Park, Aspro, which acquired the attraction at the start of this year, said it fully accepts the findings of the court case and the conclusion of the investigation.

A spokesperson for the operator said: “The safety and well-being of our visitors is of paramount importance and, since acquiring the Park earlier this year, we have continued to review all procedures throughout the business. We would, once again, wish to take this opportunity to extend our very deepest and most heartfelt sympathies to the Williams family.”

Hydro re-opened to the public in 2005. Following recommendations from the HSE, over-the-shoulder restraints were fitted, and a remote CCTV system implemented to monitor the ride. The ride cannot be dispatched if any over-the-shoulder restraints are not in the locked position.

Summing up the case, Inspector Nicolle said: “Fairgrounds, including theme parks, attract and entertain millions of people safely each year but, regrettably, accidents and incidents do sill happen. Yet, the majority of incidents are, as in this case, caused by management failings.”

He told SHP that the size of the fine sent out a message to fairground and theme-park operators across the country to ensure that their staff are doing what is required of them and that the high standards of a ride’s operation are maintained while that ride is in operation.

He added: “Management has to ensure that staff are doing what is required of them day in, day out, and that relates to having suitable levels and methods of supervision, of which remote video monitoring is just one.”

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