It was a cool, crisp Saturday morning in the middle of April. With the van loaded, we headed
out for our first trip of the year to the amusement park.
For three years now, we had tucked away a little extra money for season passes. The excitement radiating from the kids with each visit was more than enough reasoning to justify the splurge.
After driving nearly an hour through four lanes of rushing traffic, we finally arrived at our destination. For miles the kids could see the roller coasters high in the sky. They shouted and squealed with excitement. It never seemed to grow old to them or to us for that matter.
We pulled into the member’s lot, still having to park quite the distance and make the long hike to the park entrance. Knowing what was ahead made the daunting walk much more bearable. We piled Olivia’s stroller full of our necessities for the day and strapped her into the seat. She gleamed from ear to ear at the thought of riding her favorite pink horse on the carousel.
As usual, when we arrived at the gate, our bags were checked, ID’s were scanned and we passed through the turn-styles ready and willing to dare the coolest, fastest rides.
This year would prove to be even more exciting than previous years. Our oldest son, Noah, had always been able to ride all the rides with no restrictions because of his height, however, in previous years, our middle child, Caleb, had been left out of the excitement of the biggest rides because he fell just shy of the height requirement. This was his year. He was finally able to ride the big rides, much to my dismay.
As we made our way to the newest ride first, an exciting thriller with nothing more than a waste bar to hold you in, my heart began to race. I looked at my small framed, eight year old son and panic quickly set in. As a mom, there is nothing worse than worry and fear for your children, which creeps in and overtakes your mind. I imagined him getting on the coaster, having the time of his life, laughing with bundles of joy and just when the highlight of the ride sinks in, him slipping through the safety bar and plunging to his death on the stone ground below.
It’s certainly not the pretty picture we had started out with that morning. What had been sheer excitement for us all, was quickly wiped from my mind when all the “what if’s” began to take their place, occupying in mind, stealing those precious moments of joy.
Tony and the boys made their way through the winding line of anxious thrill seekers. Olivia and I watched from afar, noting the fearless faces loading the black and red coaster. Click and clanks sounded from the air pressure safety mechanisms locking the bars against each riders lap. They were off, off to the thrill of a lifetime, one I could not bear to watch.
In my heart, I hoped they would be fine. What are the odds of someone falling from the ride, I asked myself. These things are tested and retested and tested again, right? Of course they are! I had convinced myself there was no reason for all this worry. Everything would be fine and what memories we were making. After all, hadn’t we done this very same thing for the past couple years? This was a new beginning, a new thrill for Caleb and who was I to take that away from him? I waited with anticipation for his safe return.
In the meantime, Olivia and I watched as other guests passed by, each with their own stories of why they were there, how often they came and what worries they brought with them. I found myself drawn to their stories.
I imagined as this one family walked by, they were probably from nearby. They looked like regulars. The two small girls had matching bows tied around their bouncy blond curls. The mom was thin, wearing a light blue tank top with gray shorts. She looked like a runner. She’s probably one of those 5k kinds of moms, I thought. The dad wore an overgrown five-o-clock shadow. I assumed he was a business man and enjoying a day without having to be Mr. Professional.
They were the image of the perfect suburban family. Images of their house and car ran through my mind. They probably lived in a cute little neighborhood with matching mailboxes and a well groomed entrance, bearing a sign that read Happy Trails Community or something of the sort. They most likely drove the newest and safest SUV or minivan, in a dark gray, I pictured. They were soon out of sight and my focus quickly turned to another family.
Strolling along the hot, black asphalt was what appeared to be an extended family. There was grandma and grandpa, doting on the four small children. They stopped along the brick seating just down from the bench where Olivia and I were waiting. Overhearing their conversations, they carried quite an accent. Chicago, I guessed, but having traveled very little, all I knew for sure was it had to be a northern accent. Two younger couples followed behind pulling a large plastic wagon with two more children in tow. The little boy in the wagon was wearing dark blue sunglasses and a funny little orange hat. The girl, who I assumed was his sister, kept kicking his legs, and shouting, “Move, you’re in my way!”
I chuckled slightly, thinking of the trip here and how Olivia had done the same thing with Caleb when he had gotten close to her. She often shouted her annoyance by him or tattled when Caleb would continuously aggravate her.
One of the gentlemen quickly introduced a juice cup and snack to the two small children and all was well in their world. The other children plopped down along the brick wall next to grandma and grandpa. I listen for a few moments, enjoying the stories grandpa told about when he had brought their dad to this amusement park when he was their age. The women stood there and talked about what rides they would do first. The grandma and one of the girls traded licks on a bright red lollipop.
Olivia noticed the lollipop and begged for a purple one which I, of course, promised to get her later!
Other people continued to pass by as I watched, imagining where they came from and where they were headed. Families, large and small, young couples and groups of friends passed by, all excited to be headed to their next ride. It was a beautiful sunny day. Not a cloud could be seen in the brilliant blue sky.
Moments later, much to my relief, Tony and the boys had found their way back to us, safe and sound, with all their limbs. I breathed a momentary sigh of relief, thankful for their return. The emotions, of course, would all return at the next big ride.
Suddenly, just as we were reacquainting with each other, shrills came with full force from a few feet away. Tony shouted, “Wait here!” and before I knew it, he was gone. He ran over to the gift shop that was quickly being swarmed by onlookers. There, on the ground, was a small boy, probably about ten years old or so. His lips were a dark shade of purple. He was lifeless. Tony pushed through, stating he was a firefighter and there to help. He leaned down to the boy, felt his neck for a pulse and began pressing on his chest. Something was wrong, very wrong.
Minutes later, emergency personnel toting their bright red and orange gear pushed through the crowd and took over. Tony stayed there, waiting to offer more aid if needed.
“What happened?” I wondered. What could possibly have gone wrong? Maybe an allergic reaction? A heart condition?
As the boy was loaded onto a stretcher and hauled away by the emergency workers, the crowd began to thin. In no time, people had all but forgotten the moments that had just transpired. A family left in crisis and yet we all returned to our day of thrills.
Just then, more screams. “Oh God,” I couldn’t help but shout. As if I hadn’t already experienced enough emotions in my battle as a mom, letting her child go on this crazy roller coaster. What was going on?
The family I had just been admiring, the runner mom, business dad with the pigtail girls. The dad ran by with his daughter cradled in his arms. The mom and other girl not far behind him, were screaming, “Help!” Emergency workers were still nearby and came to their aid. We watched in disbelief as they too began doing compressions on her petite frame.
At this point, those in the area near us were practically in panic. It was odd for one situation, but to have two? Floods of emotions began to rush in. Of course my mind began to wander, thinking of all the possible explanations for what was happening. Was the food poisoned? Could there be two allergic reactions? Was this really happening?
Just then, the unthinkable happened. Dozens of people started screaming, shouting for help. Several more people fell to the ground. The grandma and the little girl with the northern accent collapsed just feet from where we were standing. A young man shooting basketballs fell to his knees screaming in agony, grasping his throat. Two teenage girls passed by the snack stand as the first one fell, the second looked on with terror and collapsed next to the first. There were people passing out, crashing to the ground all around, others panicking. It was pure chaos all around.
Tony glared at me. I could see the fear in his eyes. We wanted nothing more than to run, to get away, to go home and to be safe, but what about these people. What was wrong with them? What had happened? Were we next? In that moment, a whole new fear filled my body. Was my family safe?
Police flooded in. Sirens were blaring. Park workers shut down the rides and encouraged everyone to stay calm and stay put. People were rushing towards the gates, frantically trying to catch up with their loved ones.
We were promptly escorted to the main entrance of the park. There, many more officers lined the gates with metal detectors, and canines. Families were being questioned and searched. Guests were encouraged to report to the EMT’s and get checked out. What had been my own silly worries over the safety of the roller coasters, had quickly turned into justified fear, overwhelming concern for my own family and others.
Hours later, after thirteen deaths, nearly fifty people sent to nearby hospitals and hundreds more checked out by firefighters and EMT’s, the suspects were caught. Three men who had previously worked for the park had come in as guests when the park opened that morning. They had placed some lollipops with arsenic in the candy store. Immediately, I thought of Olivia’s request for a lollipop. In that moment, all that could have happened to our family was wiped away with tears of thankfulness that she had not yet gotten her own lollipop.
As the police were searching the park to investigate what happened, they found the men videoing the scene. They had been watching with joy as people fell, while on lookers screamed and panic set in.
With handcuffs on, police hauled the three away through a side gate. News crews were outside the park waiting to interview the police. As one officer shoved a man into the car, the reporter managed to ask, “Why, why did you do this?” His reply, “It’s all about the thrills, isn’t it?”