At age 5, David Fackler of La Jolla, CA, was a Disneyland veteran. But there was nothing routine about his family's visit to the giant amusement park on March 10, 1998. That was the day David was finally tall enough, at 46 inches, for the real rollercoasters, and he wanted to ride them over and over. At the end of the day, he talked his more cautious 7-year-old brother, Steven, into a last go at his favoriteBig Thunder Mountain Railroad. While their father, Mark, waited on the ground, the boys piled into the car with their mother, Kathy, in the middle. They all loved the ride, screaming gleefully as it whipped along the track.
But as the rollercoaster wound down and pulled up to the platform, it paused about 20 feet from where the passengers are supposed to disembark. Thinking the ride was over, David nonchalantly stuck his left foot out of the open-sided car, "as if he were trying to slow it down the way he does his bike," Kathy Fackler explains. "It was such a kid thing to do."
When the ride slowly started up again, David's foot became wedged in the small gap between the car's running board and the edge of the platform. Panicked, he grabbed his mother. The safety bar, which fit only loosely across his lap, managed to keep his body in the car, but the friction against his foot virtually tore it in half. "It was held together by just two tendons, and he had lost all soft tissue on the bottom, up to his heel," says Fackler. "All of the pieces were there, in his tennis shoe."
The rollercoaster operator, who was on the opposite side of the track and thus unable to see what was happening, stopped the ride within seconds, but David remained caught. It took about a half hour for Disneyland employees to pry the running board off the car to release him, and another 20 minutes or so for the paramedics to arrive. Later, all of his toes would be amputated, though his foot would eventually be salvaged with vein, muscle, and skin grafts.
Though the Facklers could have sued Disneyland, Kathy was philosophically opposed to taking the company to court. "It was an accident, for God's sake," she says. Plus, she was worried that a trial would prolong her family's agonyand David's emotional recovery. So she settled privately with Disneyland in January 1999 and agreed not to discuss the details. Disneyland initially wanted her to promise not to discuss the accident itself as a condition of the settlement, but Fackler refused. "I knew I couldn't sign away my right to talk about something so important," she says.
Disneyland's desire for secrecy made Fackler increasingly uncomfortable. She wanted to thank the other visitors who had been so helpful at the scene, for instance, but company officials initially told her they had to protect the confidentiality of their guests. (Later, Fackler learned from the other visitors that they had called to ask about David, and Disneyland had offered the same explanation.) The park conducted its entire investigation of the accident without interviewing David, his parents, or any of the visitor witnesses Fackler eventually contacted. "David screamed for an hour that day," says Fackler. "I couldn't close my eyes without seeing that again, and I'm sure those folks couldn't either. But Disneyland wouldn't even acknowledge that they existed."
Disneyland's guest claims department even resisted informing the Facklers of the improvements they were making to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in response to David's accident. "My son was in a wheelchair, and they told me I had to drive to the park, buy a ticket, stand in line, and see for myself!" she says incredulously. "I don't think they believed that we were not going to sue."
Then this 41-year-old homemaker came across a story in the San Diego Union Tribune that would turn her, for the first time in her life, into a political activist. It was about another Disneyland accident that had occurred on Christmas Eve 1998, just before she settled with the company, when a metal cleat from the sailing ship Columbia fell and injured a park employee and three visitors, one of whom later died. The article maintained that these were the "first serious injuries of visitors in four years." Yet David's accidentwitnessed by dozens of peoplehad happened less than a year before.
As she continued to read about the Christmas Eve tragedy, Fackler learned that information about accidents at Disneyland was not available to the public because Californiawhich has the greatest number of permanent theme parks in the countrywas one of ten states that didn't regulate them. While rides in traveling carnivals were inspected by the state, large fixed parks like Disneyland and Great America were self-regulated.
A California state assemblyman, Tom Torlakson of Antioch, had introduced a bill to regulate fixed parks in 1997, after a slide at Waterworld USA in Concord, CA, collapsed and killed a young visitor. Torlakson had been trying to get the bill passedagainst the amusement-park industry's very effective resistanceever since.
"I wasn't excited about getting publicly involved," says Fackler. "I was leery about turning David into some poster child for rollercoaster accidents. But here was a place more than 13 million people visited every year, and it was so blatantly hiding things that ought to be known. There's an enormous conflict of interest in letting a park police its own accidents." So Fackler gave Torlakson's office a call.
"Other consumers came forward, but none with such focus," says Torlakson. "Kathy believed that she shared responsibility for what had happened, but she felt that the industry wasn't owning up to its role. She was articulate and persistent. And she was willing to tell it from her heart."
Torlakson credits Fackler's tireless work on the bill's behalflobbying lawmakers, testifying at hearings, talking to reporterswith helping to finally get it passed. The new law, which went into effect on January 1, requires California's 70-plus permanent amusement parks to submit to annual state inspections and report all accidents requiring more than simple first aid, and it makes information about those accidents available to the public. "Disneyland probably does have a very good safety record," Fackler says. "I would just like to know what it is."
Ray Gomez, Disneyland's director of communications, won't comment on the Fackler case, but he defends the park's safety procedures. "Our rides are inspected daily," he says. "Operator training is upgraded regularly, along with equipment and procedural changes." Gomez has been quoted as saying that accidents like David's "point out the need to follow the rules and keep your arms and legs inside." But while Fackler is a staunch advocate of rider responsibility, she maintains that Disneyland has violated its own rules with an advertisement showing rollercoaster riders waving their hands over their heads. "Watching that commercial made me sick," she says.
A LAW FOR SAFER PARKS
Fackler is now supporting a federal bill introduced in Congress after four people were killed at three different amusement parks in a single week last summer. On August 22, a 12-year-old boy slipped through a harness on the Drop Zone at Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara, CA; on the 23rd, a 20-year-old man was killed on the Shockwave at Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond, VA; and on the 28th, a 39 year-old woman and her 8-year-old daughter were killed when their car plunged backward on the Wild Wonder rollercoaster at Gillian's Wonderland Pier in Ocean City, NJ.
Massachusetts congressman Edward J. Markey's bill, which is awaiting a hearing, would close what he refers to as "the rollercoaster loophole" added in 1981 to the Consumer Product Safety Act. The law governs traveling amusement park rides, but fixed-park rides are exempt, just as they were in California. Markey's bill is not as extensive as the California law (it doesn't mandate inspections, for instance), but it would allow the commission to investigate deaths and serious injuries, propose corrective measures, and make the information public. "We're trying to give the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission the same jurisdiction over amusement park rides that it has over toaster ovens," says Fackler, who is prepared to testify for the bill. She has also created a Web site, www.saferparks.org, where she posts information she has collected, including safety tips for concerned parents.
THE HEALING CONTINUES
Yet Fackler's biggest concern over the past two years has been David's recovery. He took his first steps without a walker two months after the accidenton Mother's Dayand he can now run and jump. But the muscle graft made his foot larger than normal, so fitting shoes is difficult. And the thigh skin covering his foot is less durable than regular foot skin. Little cuts turn into ulcers, which without vigilant care can easily become infected. One wound has refused to heal for a year and a half.
Last November, the family returned to Disneyland, "to try to replace that awful day with a normal day," Fackler says. At first, David refused to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and his mother says she worried "that all the work I'd beer doing over the past year had scared him." But she assured him that he could ride the rollercoaster without getting hurt and told him to keep his feet inside, as the recorded warning now advises. After mulling it over, David decided to give his once favorite ride another try. His mother reports that he rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with a mixture of fear, enjoyment, and a sense of accomplishment. "David will probably process the accident in different ways at different stages of his development for the rest of his life," Fackler says. "But I'm prouder of him than I can say."