DREAMWORLD INQUEST Disturbing details behind the theme park tragedy.
DREAMWORLD INQUEST. With the first stage of the inquest complete, major safety issues at the theme park have been exposed A lmost two years after a fatal accident on the Thunder River Rapids ride, at Gold Coast theme park Dreamworld, claimed four lives, t
“We are horrified by the evidence” —Kate Goodchild and Luke Dorsett’s family
ride operators had 57 seconds before the second raft carrying the victims collided with it. If the emergency button had been pressed, it would have brought the ride to a halt within two seconds. Not only was that button not clearly labelled, junior operator Courtney Williams, one of two Dreamworld employees in charge of the ride at the time of the collision, testified that she “didn’t know” it would stop the ride’s conveyor belt moving and was told during training that she wouldn’t need to use it.
Employees had also been discouraged from using the button in a memo sent a week prior to the incident, being told to only press it if the “main control panel cannot be reached.” That panel contained a “slow” stop button, which took seven to nine seconds to bring the ride to a standstill. “It is a confusing control panel and that has been raised by the auditors,” said Detective Sergeant
Brown. Recommendations dating back to 1999 had suggested the emergency process be simplified.
Williams, who told the inquest that she felt under pressure not to talk to police after the accident, had received 90 minutes of training on the Thunder River Rapids before starting her first ever shift on the ride that morning. “It was my first day, I wasn’t confident operating the control panel,” she said, adding that she felt her training was not sufficient. In a video recorded five days after the incident, Amy Crisp, the Dreamworld employee who trained Williams, told police that she had shown Williams the emergency stop button. “I pointed it out to her … When we got to the control panel I described it to her in more detail because that’s where we were doing the emergency stuff.” Crisp also said that she told Williams, “‘If you hit that, it will stop your conveyor and a pump’, and she understood that … She said, ‘ Yeah, yeah, I get it.’ ” Crisp did add that, “She didn’t need to know it yet and I knew she was a bit overwhelmed.”
Senior operator on the ride at the moment of impact, Peter Nemeth, stated that he was “surprised” to learn that the emergency button did not stop the ride immeadiately, and said that once he realised the empty raft was stuck, he had pressed the slow stop button two or three times in an attempt to prevent the collision. Other evidence suggested Nemeth pushed the slow stop button about 10 seconds after the crash, while the operator himself said that the Thunder River Rapids was “more stressful” to operate than the park’s other rides due to the number of responsibilities involved, which included 36 safety checks in less than a minute.
The fatal incident, which occurred at 2 PM, was not the first time that day one of the ride’s water pumps had failed. Pump failures had also occurred at 11.50 AM and 1.09 PM— information that had been given to Nemeth as he started his shift by his supervisor, who said, “The pump has … gone down twice and if it happens once more we would have to stop operating the ride for the day.” The only way for the ride to be stopped in the event of a pump failure was by an
operator stepping in and taking action— there was no automatic shut-off if water levels dropped too low. Indeed, the only way for operators to tell if the water had dropped was “just a stain on the wall,” according to senior operator Timothy Williams, referring to a scum mark that showed when the water level decreased.
While two electrical maintenance workers had responded to the earlier faults, one of those staff members, Matthew Robertson, told the inquest, “They [maintenance staff ] were distracted that day. There were other electrical issues that needed to be resolved in another area of the park. The electrical department were stretched resource-wise on that particular day.” The fitter and turner also explained that it was left to his own judgment whether a specific fault was dangerous, adding that faults could lead to as many as 20 shutdowns a day. On the day in question, the cause of the pump fault was not examined—instead, the ride was merely reset to get it up and running again. Engineering supervisor Peter Gardner admitted that the Thunder River Rapids ride should not have been in service following the two earlier breakdowns.
Seven months before the fatal incident, cutbacks in repairs and maintenance had been ordered due to Dreamworld’s expenditure being massively over budget. Mark Thompson, who worked as the theme park’s safety manager at the time, said he requested a team of six to oversee workplace health and safety. “There was only one of me ... It made it hard for me to do proactive work when I was putting out forest fires,” he testified. Following the accident, six safety professionals were hired in early 2017.
Evidence of previous accidents involving the Thunder River Rapids was also submitted, with testimony given about an “almost identical incident of rafts coming into contact” occurring in November 2014, following which a ride operator was reportedly fired. Other incidents were also discussed, including one dating back to 2001, which occurred during a passenger-free dry run and involved a raft flipping. Following that incident, a staff member emailed, “I shudder when I think if there had been guests on the ride.”
During Thompson’s cross-examination, it emerged that a warning about the potential for rafts flipping had been deleted from the first aid policy for the Thunder River Rapids ride. “The rafts are very heavy and there is a lot of underwater obstacles that could cause the rafts to flip or entrap a guest,” the warning had read. Thompson testified that he had not been made aware of previous collisions and situations when rafts had flipped.
As the evidence concluded in the first stage of the inquest, Ardent Leisure, Dreamworld’s parent company, issued a statement on June 29 saying, “We acknowledge that shocking and deeply concerning evidence has been presented at the coronial inquest. We know that this has been a harrowing time for all, particularly the victims’ families. We are sorry that they have had to relive the trauma of that terrible day in October 2016.”
On the same day, Ardent Leisure CEO Craig Davidson resigned, with the company seeking to recruit a new CEO. Company chairman Gary Weiss said in a statement, “Like everyone else, I have been deeply concerned by what has emerged from the inquiry over the past fortnight. This is why it is important that we listen to the evidence, understand all we can and apply the lessons learned to ensure such accidents never occur at our parks.”
As Australian schools broke up for the winter school holidays, the normally busy Dreamworld has been described as resembling a “ghost town,” with families staying away from the theme park.
The inquest will resume in October.
“We hold Dreamworld totally responsible for this tragic event” —the families of Kate Goodchild and Luke Dorsett
Three days after the accident that claimed four lives at Dreamworld, a candlelight vigil was held outside the theme park on October 28, 2016.
At the conclusion of the initial stage of the inquest, Craig Davidson stepped down from his position as CEO of Ardent Leisure, the company that owns Dreamworld.