It’s National Roller Coaster Day, and also a tragic day in NJ theme park history
Theme parks and roller coasters. The epitome of thrilling family fun and fond memories. Especially here in New Jersey, home to boardwalks, family-owned parks, and the world-class Six Flags Great Adventure.
Unfortunately, throughout history, several high-profile accidents have occurred at New Jersey theme parks. Some were even fatal.
The most infamous tragedy was probably the Haunted Castle fire at Great Adventure on May 11, 1984. Eight teenagers were trapped and killed in the inferno.
Three years later, on June 17, 1987, a 19 year old woman fell from one of the Lightnin' Loops roller coasters when an operator allegedly failed to secure her harness.
But I want to tell you about a little-known incident that predated both of these. A park employee died exactly 40 years ago - August 16, 1981 - attempting something incredibly stupid and dangerous.
Rolling Thunder stood in the Frontier Adventures section of Six Flags Great Adventure from 1979 to 2013. In its prime, it was an exciting dual-tracked, racing wooden roller coaster. 96 feet tall, 56 mph top speed, over 3,300 feet long, and built with over 60 miles of Douglas Fir lumber.
I have a special affinity for the dearly departed Rolling Thunder. I spent three fantastic summers working for Six Flags, as ride operator and manager of that very ride. (How appropriate for a future meteorologist, right?) Odds are pretty good that if you rode Rolling Thunder between 2002 and 2004, I was the one telling you to remain seated with your hands, arms, and legs inside the ride at all times.
But long ago, in Rolling Thunder's third season of operation, 20 year old park employee Scott Tyler of Middletown, N.J. was killed during a morning test ride.
The NJ Department of Labor and Industry issued a statement that said (as reported by the New York Times):
According to employees and other eyewitness accounts, all safety equipment was in place when the ride began... The investigation so far indicates that Tyler may have assumed an unauthorized riding position that did not make use of the safety feature of the restraining devices.
A later report by OSHA gave more detail as they fined the park later that month:
Mr. Tyler, who had worked at the park for several summers, was test riding the Rolling Thunder roller coaster just before the 10 A.M. opening of the park when he fell to his death. An autopsy showed he had died of a fractured skull and multiple injuries. Officials estimated the car had been traveling at around 35 miles per hour at the time of the accident, and said that Mr. Tyler had not put down a safety bar before he began the test run.
In other words? The daredevil climbed out of the lap bar, holding on for dear life. Until the roller coaster train hit the high-speed turn, and he was thrown off.
The coaster was thoroughly inspected by state officials, deemed structurally and mechanically safe, and reopened two days later.
Modern theme park rides have so many redundant safety features and procedures that it would be difficult for such a tragedy to happen again.
There is an eerie appendix to this story too. Legend has it (among the Rolling Thunder crew) that the deceased operator haunted the ride. And that every year of the anniversary of his death - August 16th - something strange always happened.
And yes, I can confirm that the strangest breakdowns of my ride operating career happened precisely on this date. Phantom error messages, a broken proximity switch, and a blown lift transformer.
It is the closest I've ever come to "supernatural" occurrences. That's why National Roller Coaster Day has an unusual significance for me, and anyone who knows the history of Rolling Thunder. (May she Rest in Pieces.)
Dan Zarrow is Chief Meteorologist and Coasterologist for Townsquare Media New Jersey. These days, he can be found occasionally riding roller coasters, instead of working at them. Follow Dan on Facebook or Twitter for your latest forecast and realtime weather updates.