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2 Killed, 2 Hurt on Roller Coaster

August 29, 1999 GMT

OCEAN CITY, N.J. (AP) _ Mark Matczak and his two young children were waiting to board the Wild Wonder roller coaster when a car that had started out on its ride suddenly reversed course.

``It was like, `Oh, my God, it’s coming back down,‴ said Matczak, 39, of Tylersport, Pa. ``As quickly as I said that, it hit.″

The accident killed two people Saturday night _ a 39-year-old woman and her 8-year-old daughter _ when the car sliding backward smashed into their car as they waited to begin the ride. Two other people were injured.

The accident was the latest in several fatal mishaps this summer at amusement parks across the nation.

``This season has been quite saddening in that regard, and it’s certainly not normal,″ said Joel Cliff, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Officials would not speculate on what may have caused Saturday’s accident. Representatives of the manufacturer, the Zamperla Co. of Parsippany, were summoned to the park Sunday.

Saturday’s accident brought the total of deaths in the last week alone to four, while Cliff said the average number of amusement park deaths over the past two decades has been two per year.

``I don’t have a sense as to what’s causing more accidents this year. I think it’s just a set of coincidences. I think the industry is fundamentally as safe as it’s ever been,″ Cliff said.

A week ago, a disabled 12-year-old boy died on the Drop Zone ride at Great America park in Santa Clara, Calif., when he slipped out of a harness. A day later, a man who had partially wiggled out of a shoulder harness fell from the Shockwave, a stand-up roller coaster at Paramount’s Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va.

On Wednesday, a coaster at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, Calif., came to a sudden halt and stranded 28 people for nearly four hours.

New Jersey safety investigators spent Sunday inspecting the brand new, two-story steel coaster involved in Saturday’s accident, crawling beneath the cars and the tracks.

The boardwalk park where the ride is located, Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, was closed out of respect for the victims and their families, park officials said.

The Wild Wonder, which opened July 1, was inspected once before opening and once since by the state, according to E.J. Miranda, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which regulates New Jersey amusement rides.

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Its inaugural runs were attended by Gov. Christie Whitman, who pressed a button to start the ride, but balked at trying it herself. She said she was afraid of roller coasters.

New Jersey cracked down on amusement ride operators after a spate of accidents in 1997, boosting the maximum penalty for a safety violation from $500 to $5,000 and making it a crime for riders who ignore rules or fool around on rides.

The number of serious incidents dropped last summer, from 25 in 1997 to 16 last year at the state’s 1,400 rides. Saturday’s deaths were the first deaths this year on New Jersey amusement rides. Eight people have been seriously injured in ride accidents, however.

Amusement ride patrons were leery after the accident.

``You always think you’re locked in and secure, but then you hear about something like this and you go `Wow,‴ said Gianna Demedio, 10, of Harleysville, Pa., who has ridden the Wild Wonder.