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Boy dies after riding coaster at Disney World

The 12-year-old collapses after exiting the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The cause isn't known yet.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published June 30, 2006


Twelve-year-old Michael Russell fell limp and died after a whirlwind ride on the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney-MGM Studios Thursday.

The boy's father rushed to deliver CPR while someone dialed 911 and informed the operator there was no defibrillator close by.

Michael, who was on vacation with his family from Fort Campbell, Ky., was pronounced dead around 11:30 a.m. after being transported to Celebration Hospital, an Orange County sheriff's spokesman said.

The death is the third at a Florida Disney theme park since June 2005, when a 4-year-old boy also fell limp and died after a four-minute journey to Mars on Mission: Space. Nine have died at Disney World since 2003, state officials said.

"We offer the family our deepest sympathies," Disney said in a written statement. "A company representative is with them providing assistance."

Disney closed the ride pending an investigation and review by the state Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection.

Park officials reported that "an initial review shows the ride was operating normally."

The Rock 'n' Roller Coaster is a one-minute, 22-second indoor ride that promises to zoom from zero to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds "with the force of a supersonic F-14," according to Disney's Web site.

Passengers are subjected to five times the force of gravity in the first loop and hit a top speed of 57 mph, making it the second-fastest ride in the park. An Aerosmith sound track accompanies the ride as passengers blast past Hollywood landmarks on their way to a make-believe concert.

"The ride is intense, but it's not any more intense than a regular roller coaster," said Dr. Steve Karges, a St. Petersburg pediatrician who has been on the ride.

Karges said that based on the limited information available Thursday, he thinks Michael could have suffered a severe seizure or arrhythmia, a disruption in the heart's rhythmic beating, which can stop blood flow to the brain.

Michael's father, Byron Russell, told investigators his son was perfectly healthy, Orange sheriff's spokeswoman Deputy Barbara Miller said.

A heart condition such as arrhythmia can go unnoticed in children until it becomes fatal, Karges said. If such a condition exists, anything exciting or scary can cause the heart to beat rapidly and make a person more susceptible to sudden death.

In the case of 4-year-old Daudi Bamuwamye of Snellersville, Pa., who died June 14, 2005, a medical examiner determined he died as a result of an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, which can disrupt heart contractions.

That family is suing Disney, asserting that the park failed to adequately warn visitors about the ride's hazards, and that the Disney staff did not do enough to help Daudi after he lost consciousness.

While a defibrillator was not immediately available on the ride Thursday, Disney spokesman Jacob DiPietre said paramedics at Reedy Creek Fire Rescue responded and had a defibrillator with them.

"The emergency response was handled appropriately," DiPietre said. "The safety of our guests is always our number one priority."

The Russell family - Byron, 40, Charlotte, 35, and their sons Houston, 7, and Michael - were staying at Disney's Pop Century Resort before they checked out Thursday morning, Miller said. Miller said the family declined to talk with reporters about the incident.

A medical examiner will conduct an autopsy today. It could take 12 to 16 weeks to determine a cause of death, said Jack Cuccia, investigator with the Orange County Medical Examiner's Office.

The most recent death at Disney World was in April. Hiltrud Bluemel, 49, died at Celebration Hospital after complaining of dizziness and nausea as she exited Mission: Space. A medical examiner determined she died from bleeding on the brain and had severe, long-standing high blood pressure.

Altogether, at least 14 people have died at Disney's two theme parks in Florida and California since 1989.