3 serious injuries reported at 3 East TN mountain coasters - WSMV News 4

3 serious injuries reported at 3 East TN mountain coasters

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Three serious accidents happened at three mountain coaster over the course of a month. (WSMV) Three serious accidents happened at three mountain coaster over the course of a month. (WSMV)

It’s one of the hottest spots for vacations in Tennessee, synonymous with fun and family entertainment.

Thousands of people travel to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg every year, especially during the fall and summer months.

The Channel 4 I-Team checked the inspection records of a popular type of amusement ride that has been in the spotlight this year.

Mountain coasters can be found throughout Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, attracting hundreds of thrill seekers every week. But in the course of just one month, three serious accidents happened at three different coasters.

Amy Watkins and her boyfriend, Cowen Usebio, boarded the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster on July 30. She said she never expected to leave on a stretcher.

“It felt like we were in a car crash because I’ve been in car crashes before, so it just felt like that,” Watkins said.

The I-Team discovered Watkins wasn’t alone in being injured on a mountain coaster.

An accident at The Coaster at Goats on the Roof in Pigeon Forge resulted in a woman breaking her arm.

Another incident resulted in a woman getting ejected from the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster.

“She is unconscious, she is bleeding from it looks like the nose,” said a first responder in a 911 call from July 3.

So how are these rides different than typical roller coasters? Riders sail down the tracks, which are built on mountains, at speeds up to 27 or even 30 mph, depending on the ride.

The speed is ultimately up to the rider, who is in control of the brakes and controls.

Signs warn customers to stay at least 80 feet apart on the tracks. But on the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster, there is no automatic mechanism to stop the carts from colliding.

On the night of July 30, that’s exactly what happened.

A police report states Watkins and Usebio got caught in the back-up before a cart crashed into them from behind.

“No one was coming to help, and we were, like, screaming, ‘Help!’” Usebio said. “It took them a while to come up there and yeah, it was really scary and painful.”

Watkins said her neck and back hurt so badly, she had to sit down after exiting the ride. Later, she left in an ambulance.

State records show inspectors found no mechanical issues with the ride. Watkins blames employees for spending too little time on the safety briefing.

“Obviously, people are going to get scared and you should prepare for that and not hold all the responsibility on the customers,” Watkins said.

On the same day, another woman was injured at The Coaster at Goats on the Roof.

Surveillance video shows an employee fastening the seat belt across the woman’s waist but not her chest, which investigators noted as the “wrong” position in the police report.

What happened afterward is documented in scene photos taken by Pigeon Forge police.

The police report states the rider lost control and wrecked. Records show the woman cut her face and broke her arm.

“A woman did break her arm on this ride. Is that a failure on your part?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“We want to assume all responsibility,” said Matthew Ayers, the owner of the Coaster at Goats on the Roof. “Anything we can ever do to make the ride more safe, we want to. We hate that that happened to her, and hopefully nothing like that ever happens again.”

But none of those compare to what happened on the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster.

The police report states the woman was also not wearing her seat belt. The woman fell five feet down an embankment, according to the 911 call.

“I’m right here holding the patient. I’m trying to get a pulse on her,” a caller told 911 dispatchers.

Investigators also noted in reports she appeared to suffer a traumatic head injury.

“Do you take responsibility for that?” asked Autler.

“I cannot answer that right now because we are deemed by the insurance legal matters that we’re not supposed to say anything about that until it’s totally settled,” said Anthony Cordina, the general manager of Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster.

Cordina said the rider is ultimately responsible for following the rules.

“I have no control over you or the person behind you,” Cordina said. “That’s why we say you assume all liabilities and risk.”

While the owners of Smoky Mountain Alpine did not address specific questions about safety improvements, we received an email that read:

For their safety and the safety of others, riders are instructed on proper operation of the ride.  The attraction, its structure and the coasters, are maintained and inspected in accordance with applicable guidelines.   

In this instance, unfortunately, a rider did not abide by the instructions that he was given and had acknowledged understanding.

After the incident, the track and all coasters/carts were inspected. Immediately after the State had an opportunity to review the inspection reports and the safety measures already implemented at the facility, including instructional videos and signage on the proper operation of the coasters, the State determined that the attraction was in proper working order and permitted the attraction to re-open.

The I-Team rode all three coasters that reported incidents. Employees did give detailed instructions about what to do and checked safety restraints.

Becky and Kevin Shanks had the same experience.

“They did check to make sure the seat belt was secured properly when we got in,” Becky Shanks said. “I mean, accidents do happen.”

But Watkins said in her opinion, if you can’t trust the people around you, you can’t trust the ride.

“They probably shouldn’t even have them, they’re extremely dangerous,” she said.

The owners at all the coasters said they test the track and carts every morning and even throughout the day.

At The Coaster at Goats on the Roof, where the woman broke her arm, management has added additional signs that spell out the rules and the risks.

Owner Matthew Ayers said employees double and triple check riders and their safety restraints before sending them off.

His coaster is also different because of an automated system that stops the carts from colliding.

This summer the state implemented a new law requiring all amusement operators to report accidents within 24 hours.

The state did not receive notice from The Coaster at Goats on the Roof for seven days, which resulted in a $2,100 fine.

Ayers said the law had recently changed and the team needed time to get their materials together. During that investigation, the state discovered four other accidents the company had never reported.

Ayers said those accidents did not result in serious physical injuries.

As for the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster, where the rider was ejected, Cordina said they’ve retrained their employees on safety procedures.

Documents from the company state what happened “is in direct violation” of their safety protocol.

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