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Recent tragedies strap in safety as peak concern; Stats show injuries are down nationwide

Twisting, looping roller coasters. Towering Ferris wheels. Pirate ships that swing riders back and forth, higher and higher into the cloud-dappled sky.

The stomach-churning scariness is all part of the fun, but several accidents this season highlight the fact that these rides can be deadly, too.

*James Hackemer, an Army veteran from Gowanda who lost his legs and left hip to a roadside bomb in Iraq, died after falling out of Darien Lake Theme Park Resort's Ride of Steel coaster in July.

*A month earlier, an 11-year-old girl fell to her death from the Ferris wheel at an amusement park in Wildwood, N.J.

*Friday, five people were hurt when the center mast snapped on the 30-year-old Sea Dragon swinging-ship ride at the same New Jersey park.

There is no federal regulation of rides at amusement parks and therefore no reliable nationwide government statistics on injuries on those rides. There are nationwide fatality statistics, but they show no discernible trend in recent years.

Also, data from an industry group shows ride injuries have declined in recent years at the nation's amusement parks.

The manufacturers and operators of these rides insist they are safe, even though state oversight is uneven.

"Safety is the No. 1 priority for the amusement park industry. Fundamental safety measures have been in place in the industry for decades," Colleen K. Mangone, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said in an email.

Whatever the threat of injury, it's not enough to keep millions of people from visiting the nation's parks, including Darien Lake and Martin's Fantasy Island in Western New York.

Patrons who stopped by Darien Lake on Monday said the rare accident or death on a ride doesn't worry them.

"We trust that people do their jobs and that everything's in good condition. The accidents are really just freak accidents," said Sherry Varkel, a mother of two from Grand Valley, Ont.

RideAccidents.com, a website that collects information on ride injuries and deaths from around the world, reported 17 accidents at parks so far in 2011.

They ranged from a fatal fall from a Tokyo coaster in January to Friday's accident on the Sea Dragon at Morey's Mariner's Landing Amusement Pier in New Jersey.

In the latter incident, police said they aren't sure why the center mast on the Sea Dragon snapped. The ride, installed in 1981, has been shut down while state and police officials investigate.

Martin's Fantasy Island used to have a swinging-ship ride, known as the Sea Ray, but got rid of it after the 2009 season.

The Sea Ray was removed to make way for a newer, fresher ride, not for any safety concerns, spokesman Ray Wigle said.

Darien Lake still has its Pirate ship ride.

Darien Lake has, however, closed down the Ride of Steel coaster for the remainder of the season for repairs that require customized parts.

"The safety of our guests and staff are our No. 1 priority. Darien Lake has been in operation for nearly 50 years, entertaining more than 35 million guests. Our commitment is to make a safe place even safer," spokeswoman Cassandra Okon said in an email.

A New Jersey state report released last month, following the June 3 death of the 11-year-old girl, did not determine why she fell from her gondola on the Ferris wheel but suggests a passenger would have had to stand up to get out of the gondola.

New York State's investigation into the July 8 death of Hackemer cited "operator error" in the incident.

The rules for the coaster require that riders have both legs because safety devices restrain the legs, shins and lap to hold the rider safely in the car.

Three attendants and Hackemer himself ignored those rules, and the state Labor Department cited Darien Lake for two violations in the incident.

"We were all devastated by this tragedy, and we are committed to doing everything we can to prevent something like this from ever reoccurring," Darien Lake General Manager Christopher Thorpe said at a news conference last month announcing changes to the park's safety procedures.

Jim Barber, a former state Labor Department ride regulator, was familiar with the New Jersey and Darien Lake fatal accidents.

"Both of those can be traced back to people being killed doing something they shouldn't have done," said Barber, who retired in 1996 after 27 years with the department's Industry Inspection Bureau.

Injuries on rides at the nation's amusement parks have declined since 2003, according to calculations based on survey data collected by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, which represents the manufacturers and operators of amusement park rides.

The association estimated that 2,044 people were injured on rides at 403 amusement parks in 2003, while 1,181 people were injured on rides at 398 facilities in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.

"I think, speaking in general, that they are very safe," Barber said.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which collects data on fatal accidents, said that between 1987 and 2004, 46 people died on rides at amusement parks, according to a 2005 commission report that has not been updated. The number of deaths in any given year are small, and there is no apparent year-to-year trend.

The commission regulates mobile amusement rides, the kind at traveling carnivals and fairs, but it does not have the authority to regulate fixed-site amusement parks, said commission spokesman Carl Purvis.

Each state decides whether, and how, to regulate those parks. Some do not have any regulations of these rides, while others don't have an inspection force of their own and rely on insurance company investigators or contract inspectors to handle the work, Barber said.

In New York, the state Labor Department regulates rides at amusement parks. Department employees inspect every ride at those parks twice a year, once near the start of the season and once during the summer.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked the Labor Department to create an online database of inspection reports from the state's amusement parks. The department is finalizing that database, a spokesman said Monday.

The Labor Department could not immediately provide statistics on the number of injuries and deaths at the state's amusement parks.

New Jersey reported that serious and nonserious accidents on the rides at its parks and carnivals fell by more than half, from 382 in 2003 to 183 in 2010.

In interviews Monday, safety issues were far from the minds of visitors at Darien Lake. They were more interested in talking about the fun they had at the amusement park.

"I don't really mind any of the rides," said Wellsville resident Byron Quick, 11, as his mother and friends ate by the car before heading into the park. "I know that I can probably just be safe on these rides."

Varkel, the Ontario mother, and her group had already gone on the Viper roller coaster, which her son, Nicholas, 8, enjoyed because of its steep drops.

"I liked the big hill because it got my tummy," he said. "I want to go on the Viper again."

News Staff Reporter Michelle Kearns contributed to this report.

email: swatson@buffnews.com