The Craziest Amusement Park Accidents That Resulted In Death

By: Kevin Saltarelli
A view of an amusement park with the Ferris wheel in the background.
Amusement parks are so much fun but sometimes cause tragic accidents. Maremagnum / Getty Images

The love affair with amusement parks began in Coney Island, New York. In 1884, thousands of people flocked here to ride on La Marcus A. Thompson’s Switchback Gravity Pleasure Railway. This Pleasure Railway offered the chance to speed along its 450-foot track at 6 mph. By 1927, the Coney Island Cyclone, which travelled at 60 mph, ushered in a new area of roller coasters. With it came real dangers. While the risk is small, the odds of dying at an amusement park are 1 in 300 million. Here is our list of 14 crazy amusement park accidents that resulted in death.


14. Coaster Accidentally Switches Tracks at Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City, located in Missouri, is one of America’s most successful amusement parks. Fire in The Hole, a three-story steel enclosed roller coaster, is a favorite amongst amusement park enthusiasts for its dated production values and the peculiar concept of the ride. It’s also the ride responsible for the only fatality at Silver Dollar City since it’s doors opened in 1960.

On July 9, 1980, 23-year-old James Frederick Polley was one of several passengers riding a train on Fire in the Hole, which was mistakenly thought to be empty. The train was switched from the main tracks onto a maintenance track heading towards a storage area with a low hanging door. Maintenance workers shouted at the passengers to duck. Polley failed to react and smashed his head on the door. The accident was ruled a case of human error and the ride re-opened two days later.


13. Coasters and Heart Conditions: A Deadly Combination

Roller coasters are required to list all potential health hazards for those who dare to ride them. Unfortunately, some people fail to take these warnings seriously. This was the case in 1976 at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. For weeks the park was advertising their new ride on television with the tagline, “I challenged the Python and lived!”

The city was buzzing with anticipation for Python’s opening on April 25, 1976. Four days before the ride was set to open, Busch Gardens treated the press with an advanced ride. Stan Hoyer, a 39-year-old, 6-foot-6, 340-pound man with a heart condition, was one of the local reporters who was offered this privilege. Sadly, he had a heart attack from the experience and died. The ride’s tagline was removed shortly afterwards and the warning sign was doubled in size.


12. Man Killed While Retrieving His Hat

Terrible things can happen when warning signs are only posted in a single language. This is what happened on September 7, 1998 when a man entered a fenced off area underneath the Top Gun roller coaster at California’s Great America amusement park. Twenty-five-year-old Hector Mendoza, who spoke Spanish only, entered into an “Employees Only” section of the park to retrieve his hat just as 28-year-old Jessica Medina’s dangling legs came rushing by at 50 miles an hour.

Mendoza, who had been recently married, died about an hour after the incident as Jessica Medina was being treated for a fractured leg. The ride was closed for the day while Mendoza’s black hat remained at the scene with a police evidence tag next to it. This terrible tragedy was the third fatality in the history of the amusement park.


11. Coaster Collision Claims the Life of a 14-Year-Old Boy

Willard’s Whizzer was a Speedracer roller coaster built for California’s Great America amusement park. Problems with the braking system, which caused trains to collide at the station, became apparent almost immediately after the Speedracer rides were introduced in 1976. From 1976 to 1979, there were at least 11 instances of trains colliding, resulting in an unknown number of injuries. No solutions were put in place to remedy the problem.

On March 29, 1980, two trains collided again. This time the accident resulted in the death of a 14-year-old boy and the injuries of eight other passengers. The Marriott Corporation failed to notify the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission about the safety hazard. The incident was settled for just $70,000. This hardly seems equivalent to the enormous loss of a human life.


10. A Grandmother Killed at Six Flags New Orleans

Rosa Donaldson, a 52-year-old from New Orleans, was taking care of her four-year-old grandson for the summer. She purchased season passes to the zoo, the aquarium, the museum and the Six Flags New Orleans amusement park. July 10, 2003, was supposed to be an entertaining evening at Six Flags. It turned out to be an awful tragedy instead.

The boy was getting ready to ride one of the parks newest attractions, the Joker’s Jukebox, which consists of 30 cars that spin on six moving arms. Donaldson entered into a restricted area to ensure that her grandson was properly fastened just as the operator started the ride. One of the spinning cars hit her on the head and another one hit her in the abdomen immediately afterwards. Donaldson bled to death before she arrived at the hospital. The ride now plays a safety announcement before it begins.


9. A Mother and Daughter Killed on New Jersey Roller Coaster

On August 28, 1999, a roller coaster at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in New Jersey suffered two mechanical failures while making its ascent to the highest point in the ride. As the car approached the peak it suddenly plunged 30 feet down the hill, at an extreme speed, towards a 90-degree angle in the track. Kimberly Bailey, 39, and her eight-year-old daughter Jessica were sent flying to their deaths.

The first mechanical failure happened with the drag chain that is designed to pull the car to the top of the hill and detach moments before the car begins its decent down the launch hill. In this case the drag chain disconnected before the car reached the top causing it to roll backwards down the track. The second mechanical failure happened due to a faulty anti-rollback device. This tragedy caused the only fatalities at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in its 86-year history.


8. The Krug Park Big Dipper Roller Coaster Accident

On July 24, 1930, one of the worst roller coaster accidents in American history occurred at Krug Park in Omaha. The accident was the result of a faulty bolt that was supposed to hold a brake shoe in place. The brake shoe slipped and got caught beneath the rear wheels of one of the cars, causing the car to come off the track and smash though a frail guardrail. As the car plummeted downward to the ground it pulled the other three cars down with it, leaving the passengers crushed underneath the wreckage.

Four people were killed and 17 others were seriously injured. The Omaha City Council immediately banned all roller coasters within the city. By 1940, Krug Park was forced to close its doors permanently. The area became a public space with three ball fields, a playground and a swimming pool and was renamed Gallagher Park.


7. A Grandmother Killed and a 4-Year-Old Paralyzed in Indiana

This accident is just infuriating. On August 11, 1996, Old Indiana Fun Park made every mistake they could possibly make. A derailed miniature train claimed the life of a 57-year-old grandmother and left a 4-year-old paralyzed from the chest down.

The investigation revealed that the train was travelling much faster than its design speed of 12 miles per hour. The operator applied the brakes but the brakes were either damaged or missing, and most of the anti-derailment devices weren’t installed. The speedometer was broken and the track was littered with debris. The safety inspector, who examined the ride twice in the three months leading up to the accident, admitted that he wasn’t qualified for the job. Even the park’s own records showed that the miniature train had derailed 79 times in the two months preceding the accident. The owners admitted negligence and the park declared bankruptcy a few months later.


6. Six Flags Coaster Claims the Life of a 52-Year Old Woman

On July 19, 2013, Rosy Esparza was almost severed in half while riding the Texas Giant roller coaster at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. The victim expressed concern about her safety harness after she had boarded the ride. One of the operators assured her that she was properly secured and the roller coaster began its fatal ride. As the roller coaster rounded a turn, Esparza’s restraint came undone and she was thrown 75 feet onto a metal roof.

An investigation began immediately. Two months later the ride reopened with redesigned restraints, seatbelts, and a test seat at the entrance to ensure that passengers could ride safely. Esparza’s family filed lawsuits against Six Flags and the ride’s manufacture, Gerstlauer. In response, the park and Gerstlauer sued each other over the responsibility for the accident. Both companies eventually reached an undisclosed settlement with the victim’s family.


5. Accident at Expoland Killed One Person, Injured 19 Others

Fujin Raijin II, a 6-car standing roller coaster, derailed on May 5, 2007, at Expoland in Suita, Osaka, Japan. The “Children’s Day” accident claimed the life of 19-year-old Yoshino Kogawara, and injured 19 other passengers when the train smashed into a guardrail. An investigation revealed that professional negligence was the cause of the accident.

One of the axles cracked while the train was entering halfway through the 3,500-foot course. It was discovered that none of the axles had been replaced during the 15 years that the roller coaster was in operation. A month after the accident, authorities reprimanded Expoland when similar problems were found on another train. In July 2008, three employees agreed with the allegations of professional negligence, admitted to deliberately postponing the ride’s mandatory inspections, and admitted that they had submitted a bogus safety report even after visible cracks began to appear on the damaged axle.

4. Fire Kills Eight Teens at Six Flags Adventure in New Jersey

Some of us have had the experience of being mildly spooked in a typical amusement park Haunted Castle. Plastic monsters, scary noises and skeletons that pop out of nowhere are all part of the fun. On May 11, 1984, the Haunted Castle at Six Flags Adventure in New Jersey, offered a truly terrifying experience when a sudden fire engulfed the structure and claimed the lives of eight teenagers.

Hours after the fire was declared under control, firefighters discovered the eight bodies in a trailer. Initially they were mistaken as mannequins. The castle was considered a “temporary structure” and, despite recommendations from the parks safety consultants, the park was not required to install sprinklers or smoke detectors. For these reasons, Six Flags was found not guilty of aggravated manslaughter. The families of the eight victims filed civil suits against the park and were awarded over $18 million for their losses.

3. Three Killed on World’s Largest Indoor Triple Loop Coaster

On the evening of June 14, 1986, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada was packed with people attending a concert, typical evening shoppers, and others waiting for a chance to ride the world’s largest indoor roller coaster, The Mindbender. The ride had been shut down twice that evening when the operator heard a metallic sound coming from the train. When the ride reopened, 12 people joyfully got on.

Shortly into the ride the train derailed and hurled two bodies up to 100 feet. Tony Mandrusiak, 24, and his fiancé Cindy Sims, 21 where violently killed when the ride derailed. Sims was partially decapitated when her body was thrown into a concrete ledge. A third death, David Sager, 24, occurred moments after the derailment when his car stalled upside-down during one of the loops and his body fell from the ride onto the mall floor. Nineteen other people were also injured.

2. Space Journey Ride in China Kills Six People

Ecoventure Valley of Overseas Chinese Town is a popular amusement park in Shenzhen, China. One of their main attractions, Space Journey, is truly unique. The ride simulates a rocket launch by accelerating into the air at twice the rate of gravity while spinning and shaking its 11 four-person cabins. On June 29, 2010, this thrilling ride became a catastrophic nightmare.

According to eyewitnesses, there was a power outage and an explosion moments before one of the ride’s cabins came loose and collided with the other cabins. The cabins dropped 50 feet, and hurled passengers into the ground. The accident killed six people and seriously injured 10 others. Surprisingly, the ride had passed its maintenance inspection just eight days before the accident, which has heightened the concerns regarding the safety of Chinese amusement parks.

1. The Deadliest Roller Coaster Accident in History

Wooden roller coasters have a reputation for being potential death traps. They wear out quickly and require a great deal of maintenance. Even the smallest amount of negligence can result in a huge calamity. This was the situation at London’s Battersea Park Fun Fair in May of 1972. The park’s main attraction, the Big Dipper roller coaster, became the site of the deadliest roller coaster accident in history.

As the ride was being pulled to the top of the launch hill the lift chain detached from one the trains and the anti-rollback mechanism malfunctioned. The train came hurtling back down the hill and smashed into another train waiting in the boarding area. Five children were killed and 13 others were seriously injured. The roller coaster was never reopened and the Battersea Fun Fair was closed two years later as a result.