It has been a year since 52-year old Rosa Esparza died after plunging to her death while riding The Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington. NBC 5 Investigates’ Consumer Unit has examined the park’s inspection records – comparing ride certificates from 2013 to 2014. The records raise serious questions about transparency and the laws that govern inspections.
Records reveal that in 2013, one inspector with the private company PLH & Associates Worldwide Inc. signed inspection certificates and submitted the state-mandated pictures for more than 40 rides, including The Texas Giant. All the ride pictures were taken during a six day period. That’s significant because state law mandates "a picture of the ride in an operable state taken at the time of inspection."
Experts tell NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit, the possibility that one person inspected more than 40 rides in less than a week raises questions. Ken martin, is a ride inspector who has testified for and against Six Flags in previous lawsuits. He said, "It calls into question the entire inspection process, and the thoroughness of the inspection is one of those issues that need to be looked at."
In 2014, inspection records are very similar. Though it changed its name to GRB Worldwide, our research reveals it’s the same private company that inspected the rides last year. And again this year, one inspector signed the certifications for a majority of the rides – almost 40. The state-mandated accompanying pictures were taken over four days. And what's more, the pictures for 15 rides, including The Texas Giant, were taken on the same day. The Texas Giant alone is almost a mile long and 153 feet high.
Mark Goldman, an engineer who has testified against Six Flags in previous accident lawsuits believes it would take as many as three days to inspect the Texas Giant alone.
But while one inspector signed the certificates, state-mandated records don’t reveal whether one inspector or a team inspected the rides. Experts believe it could be done if there were several people involved in the inspections. NBC 5 Investigates’ Consumer Unit asked the inspector; his company, GRB Worldwide Inc., and Six Flags Over Texas about the number of inspectors involved and the time taken to inspect the rides. But no one would or could divulge that information.
When asked specific questions about the number of inspectors and the time taken to inspect about 40 rides, Six Flags refused to answer the direct questions. Instead a park spokesperson sent the following statement.
The safety of our guests and employees will always be our top priority and we invest the greatest amount of our resources in safety and maintenance programs. We have every incentive, from a reputational, moral and financial standpoint to ensure our parks are as safe as they possibly can be and we will support governmental decisions around safety testing.
We have very high safety standards. In addition to our own daily park inspections, all rides are also inspected at least annually by 1) external ride inspectors 2) Six Flags corporate engineers and 3) Six Flags corporate safety experts. All of our ride operations meet or exceed both manufacturer and ASTM standards. In addition, our park goes above and beyond to follow the guidelines set up by the Texas Department of Insurance.
For rides to be approved for operation by the state of Texas, Six Flags only uses ride inspectors who are certified by NAARSO, [National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials] approved by our insurance carriers, and on file with the Texas Department of Insurance. GRB Worldwide is one of several companies with inspectors who meet this criteria, and they conduct inspections at numerous theme parks around the world. We also use other certified consultants to inspect our rides from time to time.
Pat Hoffman, Vice President of Safety for Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, has no ownership interest in GRB Worldwide and divested 100% of his ownership in PLH more than a decade ago when he joined Six Flags. Mr. Hoffman is a highly regarded expert on theme park safety.
While the Texas Department of Insurance oversees amusement parks, state law limits its authority. The law only requires that TDI monitor whether amusement parks have insurance and whether those insurers inspect rides annually. TDI does not oversee inspections nor does assure inspections are adequate. And if amusement parks don't comply with the law, TDI can do little about it. The Texas Department of Insurance declined our interview request but sent the following statement:
Currently, the agency does not have any regulatory/enforcement authority over noncompliant amusement rides and it is discretionary for law enforcement to charge owners or operators with a Class B misdemeanor if they are found operating a noncompliant amusement ride. Addressing this issue has been a TDI legislative recommendation in the past. We are currently in the process of developing what our recommendations will be for the upcoming 2015 Session.
In 2012, more than a year before the accident, TDI asked legislators to expand its authority over amusement parks or give oversight to another agency. But even after the death of Rosa Esparza, legislators have made no legislative changes.
State Senator Kelly Hancock also represents Six Flags’ District. He sent the following statement.
During the 83rd Legislative Session, legislation was filed to move the administration of the Amusement Ride Safety and Inspection Act from the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) over to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR), who are better equipped to administer the program and have historically handled similar regulatory matters. TDI does not have the enforcement authority nor the ability to keep up with the 400 percent increase in applications filed under this program since 2005. We carefully consider legislation for the upcoming session that directly impacts our constituency, and this issue will be thoroughly researched and considered.
But the bill to move amusement park authority from TDI to TDLR, SB 1666, was ultimately unsuccessful.
Six Flags Over Texas is in District 93, the area represented by House member Matt Krause. After last year's accident, he told NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit he would ask house leadership for an interim study to investigate state oversight of amusement parks. But when asked a year later, he said he hadn’t done it.
"To be honest with you that’s probably where our office just dropped the ball," Krause said.
While Krause still believes the issue deserves study, he cautions against going too far too fast.
"I'd like to see us come to a firm conclusion. Is TDI the best place to have amusement park oversight in Texas? And if that's the case, then we need go and to make sure that TDI has the tools and resources necessary to do the job that they need to do," said Krause.