Missouri Waterslide Injury Highlights Lax Regulation
No government officials conducted a safety inspection of a new waterslide at Six Flags St. Louis before a woman said she suffered whiplash last month from the force of the "Typhoon Twister" that featured a five-story drop and a "45-foot zero gravity wave wall."
Officials said it's no surprise that the slide didn't have to pass a government safety review, even though an estimated 80 million people flock to about 1,000 water parks in the U.S. every year.
The ride is exempt from a Missouri law regulating amusement rides passed in 2004.
"If it has mechanical things to get you up ... then it's a ride," said Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
"If you don't have that, and if it's basically gravity, it doesn't meet the definition of a ride," he said.
Representatives of other water parks around the state said they also operate with little to no state oversight.
Six states don't regulate the amusement park industry at all, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions: Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah. Oversight is lax in many others.
The lack of a specific Missouri law about waterslides is a problem, said Ken Martin, a Virginia-based amusement park safety consultant who has been registered as a third-party inspector in Missouri.
"It falls through the cracks," he said about attractions that lack specific regulations.
The town of Eureka, where the park is located 30 miles (48 kilometers) southwest of St. Louis, relies on St. Louis County to handle all inspections and permits for attractions. The permit that the Typhoon Twister received from St. Louis County's public works department only reviewed the ride's machinery and plumbing.
"This represents the entirety of our involvement in the inspection of water rides/slides," David Wrone, a county spokesman wrote in an email.
A county water inspection hasn't happened yet and even when it does county spokesman Cordell Whitlock said: "We test water quality on rides, but not safety or construction."
A Six Flags press release promoting the Typhoon Twister said participants would "careen wildly into a 125-foot long whirlpool bowl" before "plummeting down an enclosed five-story drop" and then shooting up a "45-ft. zero-gravity wave wall to experience moments of weightlessness."
The day after it opened on June 22, Sondra Thornhill said she was injured on the slide.
Wearing a neck brace, Thornhill told KMOV-TV last week that she had whiplash after the slide flung her into the air.
"My whole body came off the raft," she said. "It threw me so far forward and back so fast, I mean, all I heard was my neck pop. I thought I broke it at first."
Thornhill wrote in a message to The Associated Press that she has since hired an attorney and would not be able to answer more questions. She declined to provide the attorney's name.
Elizabeth Gotway, a Six Flags spokeswoman, said the ride is temporarily closed. But she did not answer questions about what needs to happen for it to reopen.
Gotway said its water rides are inspected daily by the park, and "at least annually" by several other groups, including engineers and experts from Six Flags and a "third party independent ride consulting firm." Gotway said that same process applied to the Typhoon Twister, but gave no further details.
"The safety of our guests and employees is always our top priority and we invest the greatest amount of time and resources in our safety programs," Gotway wrote in an email.
Gotway said that the Canadian company ProSlide manufactured the Typhoon Twister. ProSlide did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The dangers of water parks policing themselves received national attention in 2016 when a boy was decapitated on a massive waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kansas. Schlitterbahn had successfully lobbied Kansas lawmakers years earlier to allow large parks to handle their own inspections.
A grand jury indictment unsealed in March concluded that the slide was a "deadly weapon" that did not meet industry safety standards. Several Schlitterbahn employees were charged with offenses including second-degree murder and endangering a child.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that there were about 5,500 public waterslide injuries treated in emergency departments last year. Those numbers can include waterslides in places other than water parks, such as cruise ships or campsites, said a spokeswoman for the federal commission.