State Records of Six Flags Over Texas Ride Inspections Raise Questions

NBC 5 Investigation calls into question the transparency of the state-required inspections.

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    NBC 5 Investigation calls into question the transparency of the state-required ride inspections. (Published Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013)

    Documents obtained by NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit raise more questions about the state-required annual ride inspections at Six Flags Over Texas.

    In July, Rosa Irene Ayala-Gaona, 52, was on the Texas Giant when she fell to her death.

    Experts say the Texas Giant, which is nearly a mile long and 14-stories high, would be tedious at best to inspect. Mark Goodson, a forensic engineer, who has testified against Six Flags in a previous accident lawsuit, said a thorough inspection could take three to four days.

    He explained an inspector would first want to look at the maintenance records and service history among other documents.

    "You would then want to go through the hydraulic system, the electric system, the control system, and then the mechanical system. And then you want to inspect the ride for evidence of corrosion in terms of its support structure," Goodson said.

    In the state of Texas ride inspections are left to private companies. Most of the records are not public, with the exception of the annual certificate of inspection, accompanying photos and certificate of liability insurance required by the state.

    After the accident, NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit requested ride inspection certificates and their accompanying photos from the Texas Department of Insurance or TDI for all of the rides at Six Flags over Texas in 2013 and prior years as well.

    TDI is the state agency responsible for monitoring whether amusement park rides have insurance. In order to get insurance, the insurance company must hire an independent inspector who is tasked with completing annual inspections. That inspector fills out the state certificate and is required by the state to provide "a picture of the ride in an operable state taken at the time of inspection."

    According to the records NBC 5 obtained, in 2013's state-required ride inspection certificates and accompanying photos, more than 40 pictures were taken during a six-day period. Ride inspector Don Hankins, submitted inspection certificates and the pictures taken during those six days for all but one ride, including the Texas giant.

    What is not clear from the documents is whether Hankins alone inspected all of these rides in six days or did he supervise a team, and how thorough these inspections were.

    Hankins has a long history as a ride inspector. He worked for the state of Oklahoma for nearly two decades before retiring and is a member of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials. At Six Flags he worked for PLH & Associates, Inc., the company Hartford Insurance Company, picked to do the inspections. For the past five years, Hankins has signed the bulk of the ride inspection certificates for Six Flags Over Texas.

    NBC 5 reached out to Hartford to ask about the inspection process. The company would not answer questions but provided this statement:

    "We are working through the claims process. It is our practice, however, not to comment on the specifics of claims involving our policyholders."

    NBC 5 called Hankins several times over several days. He directed calls to Six Flags. NBC 5 also called PLH & Associates. The owner also referred NBC 5's questions to Six Flags as well.

    Six Flags told NBC 5 to call the inspector, writing:

    “Six Flags utilizes world-class standards for ride inspections with a mix of daily, weekly, monthly and annual inspections being performed by both internal and external parties. Safety is our highest priority. In Texas, ride inspection requirements are set by the state and performed by independent third parties over multiple days, and Six Flags adheres to all of the state requirements.

    Your questions about the inspection requirements and process should be directed to the independent inspectors."

    That led back to the inspector and the companies that hired him.

    The lack of transparency in the state-required inspections troubles Ken Martin, a ride inspector who has testified for and against amusement parks in accident lawsuits. He believes Texas should have more oversight over ride inspections.

    "I'd like to see the state of Texas step up to the plate and have the intestinal fortitude to make the policy to make those changes," he said.

    Texas is one of at least 17 states, which does not have a state agency responsible for inspecting amusement park rides, according to a survey by NBC News. Texas also has no law granting the state power to investigate in the event of an accident, leaving the investigation into Ayala-Gaona's death to internal and external experts at Six Flags. TDI declined NBC 5's request for an interview.

    The agency sent this statement:

    "Among other requirements, state law requires that each ride receives an annual inspection by a qualified inspector contracted by the ride's insurer. The Texas Dept. of Insurance monitors compliance with this requirement in the form of a certificate signed by both the inspector and the insurer, attesting to the fact that the ride meets all standards required by law."

    TDI did not answer questions about what the state-required inspections entail.

    "I would hope Six Flags, the insurance people, and everybody involved at some point would give those answers. Maybe they've been told while the investigation is ongoing, everything's going, maybe not to talk about any part of it," said State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Ft. Worth.

    Six Flags Over Texas is in his district.

    In TDI's 2012, Biennial Report, the agency asked the legislature to either expand its authority over amusement parks or give that authority to another agency. Krause and other legislators told NBC 5 they would like to study the issue in the legislative interim.

    "Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy to know what you need to study," Krause said. "But we definitely need to take a closer look into this to make sure Texas is doing right by its citizens and doing the right thing in terms of regulating the amusement park industry."

    The Texas Giant remains closed.