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SheiKra strands riders for second time in a month

Park officials say even minor glitches shut down the ride and that patrons can ride with confidence in its safety.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published November 1, 2005


TAMPA - Twice in the past month, workers at Busch Gardens have had to evacuate riders from SheiKra, the park's newest thrill ride and the tallest roller coaster in Florida.

But Monday, a day after the most recent evacuation, park officials said they aren't worried that the glitches might scare away patrons. Quite the opposite.

"Frankly, our feeling is that our guests should have great confidence that our safety standards work," said Busch Gardens spokesman Gerard Hoeppner. "We understand it's an inconvenience, but we're not going to compromise safety."

Twenty-four riders were stranded temporarily on the roller coaster early Sunday afternoon when the automated safety system determined that an oil pump was not functioning properly. Riders were evacuated in about an hour, and the coaster resumed operation within two hours.

On Oct. 15, SheiKra stopped when an error was detected in its air compressor, stranding riders at the highest point. They were evacuated by a rescue trolley, and the ride reopened shortly after.

No one was injured in either incident.

SheiKra opened in May as the first "diving" roller coaster in North America. It reaches top speeds of 70 mph, features a 138-foot dive into a tunnel and creates a maximum G-force equal to four times the pull of gravity.

Like every other roller coaster at Busch Gardens, SheiKra has a team of employees dedicated solely to its inspection and upkeep, as well as a sophisticated computer system that constantly monitors sensors along the ride.

And like the other coasters, it shuts down when the computers notice a problem.

"The coaster's doing what it's designed to do," spokeswoman Robyn Hanke said. "If a bird lands on track, the sensor's going to go off."

Amusement parks that employ more than 1,000 people are exempt from having their rides subjected to state inspectors. Statutes require only that they report any injuries on rides, provide affidavits that each ride complies with state requirements and consult annually with state officials.

"They have a thorough, complete maintenance and safety program. I can say that from personal observation," said Rob Jacobs, chief of the state Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection. "Millions of people go through their parks every year, so there's a lot invested in safety."

That's a point that Busch Garden officials made again and again Monday, just as Dan Brown, the park's executive vice president and general manager, did in an interview with the Times in August.

"Tens of millions of people have ridden thrill rides and the industry's track record continues to be very good. Theme parks remain one of the safest forms of all entertainment," he said. "I cannot speak for other parks. But we do not walk a tightrope between safety and letting our guests put themselves at risk.

"Safety is first here, bar none."

[Last modified November 1, 2005, 02:15:27]


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