It seems nothing makes you feel more alive than thinking you’re about to die.
It’s feeling that’s spawned a multi-billion-dollar global amusement industry.
People travel around the world – thousands of kilometres – to test their nerve and get that rush.
But what happens when delight turns to disaster?
The earliest roller coasters were icy structures built in the snowy mountains of Russia in the 18th century.
Back then, people rode sleds on ice-covered, wooden supported slopes.
But they soon became mechanical marvels.
“The first credited roller coaster goes back to 1884 in Coney Island,” Nicholas Laschkewitsch, a mechanical engineer and theme park fanatic told Spotlight.
“That installation at Coney Island is what started this crazed obsession of building them all around the world.”
Australia was at the forefront of the amusement park craze, with Melbourne’s Luna Park opening in 1912.
Now, 109 years later, it’s the home of the oldest continuing roller coaster on earth, the Scenic Railway, which still operates to this day.
It’s one of only three left in the world and the only one with a standing brake and a ride operator on board.
With Coney Island already established as an amusement ride hub, and Disneyland opening in 1955, the race was on to build the tallest, fastest, wettest and most frightening thrill rides of all.
And the wildest, most dangerous place of all was Action Park, located just over an hour north-west of New York City.
It opened in 1978 and quickly became popular with locals and tourists.
“For people who grew up in New Jersey and went to Action Park … it was like their Disneyland,” Laschkewitsch said.
The park was the brainchild Gene Mulvihill, the full-time owner and part-time mad scientist renowned for turning a blind eye to safety.
“He paid people off … to just look the other way,” Faith Anderson, a former Action Park employee, said.
That lack of safety caused countless injuries and several deaths.
“People lost teeth … a lot of the kids would go back to school with all kinds of, of abrasions and scars and trips to the hospital,” Anderson said.
Those who survived wore their wounds with pride.
“It was almost like they were proud they got hurt at Action Park,” Laschkewitsch told Spotlight.
“It was like a trophy, a battle wound…they survived Action Park.”
Injuries and deaths included electric shocks, fractured vertebrae, impalings and decapitation.
“The most dangerous ride that was over there is the Wavepool,” Anderson said.
“It was a huge pool, it was 20 feet (6m) deep and you couldn’t see the bottom of it.
“The waves were huge and it kept running all day long until at the end of the day.
“I was there the one day that they found somebody (dead).
“It was re-opened the next day – there was no pause.”
Action Park closed in 1996, with six deaths attributed to the park in its 18 years of operation.
In 2017, 18-year old Tyler Jarrell and new girlfriend Keziah Lewis went to the Ohio State Fair.
“I remember we went to the fair and that’s about it,” Lewis said.
“And then waking up in the hospital.”
The couple got on a ride called the Fireball.
Part way through the ride, one of the arms broke off.
A bystander filmed the incident, which showed Keziah flying through the air.
Tyler was thrown 15m and died instantly.
His mother Amber Duffield found out about her son’s death on the local news.
“when they said one male is dead … I just stopped,” Duffield said.
“I called my mother and I told my mother, I said, ‘Mother, Tyler was at the fair and he’s not answering his phone … I think he’s the one’.”
It wasn’t until 11.30pm that night that the state police came to her home and confirmed her worst fears.
Keziah sustained numerous injuries, including breaking her back in two places, a broken pelvis, broken hip, broken ankle and fractures in her shoulder and neck.
It was another 48 hours before she was well enough to be told Tyler had died.
Four years on, she still bears the physical and emotional scars of that day.
“Not only were lives changed, but a life was lost because of negligence … things need to change,” Lewis said.
Tyler’s death wasn’t in vain.
Laws for rigorous inspection of fairground rides were passed unanimously by Ohio lawmakers in 2019, dubbed Tyler’s Law.
Tragedy at Luna Park
Melbourne’s Luna Park may be the home of world’s oldest roller coaster, but Sydney’s Luna Park remains the site of Australia’s – and the world’s deadliest – theme park disaster.
Eight weeks before the tragic Ghost Train disaster, that would claim seven lives, Michael Lopez was at Luna Park in Sydney with his brothers and sisters.
“I do remember we all said, ‘It’s getting late, and we’re going to go for our last ride’, and that was the Big Dipper,” Lopez told Spotlight.
But things didn’t go to plan.
“The first carriage got wedged and there were people jumping out,” Lopez said.
“Then I went, ‘oh my God, we’re going to smash into this train’.”
The coasters collided, injuring 13 children.
Michael’s arm was broken, but his sister fared worse.
“Her head split and then blood started spitting at me … that’s when I thought she was gone.”
On June 9, 1979, six children and an adult perished when a fire broke out inside the ride just after 10pm.
There has been plenty of speculation as to the cause of the fire.
Despite allegations of criminal behaviour, the original coronial inquiry and a Government Inquiry in 1987 could not determine the source of the fire.
However, the coronial inquiry did find park operators had failed in their duty of care to protect patrons and install sufficient fire suppression.
Luna Park Sydney was immediately shut down, and for many years sat silent on Sydney Harbour as the industry struggled with its reputation.
Sydney’s Luna Park would reopen again in 1995, before closing down again a year later due to poor attendance.
It opened again in 2004, and remains open today.
There’s no doubt that the Gold Coast has become Australia’s home of theme parks.
Boasting MovieWorld, Dreamworld, Wet’n’Wild and Sea World, all within a short distance of each other, millions descend on the Queensland destination (pre-COVID) each year.
That came crashing down on October 25, 2016, when Dreamworld’s most popular attraction, the Thunder River Rapids Ride, became Dreamworld’s worst nightmare.
The tragedy began when a raft got stuck on the conveyer.
When two of the rafts then collided, four adults were thrown into the water.
Cindy Low, Kate Goodchild, Luke Dorsett and Roozi Araghi were killed within seconds, crushed in the grinding wooden sleepers and steel chains below.
“That’s all it took from when the raft when up till it was all over was seven seconds,” said Kim Dorsett, who lost her daughter Kate, her son Luke and his partner Roozi in the tragedy.
David Randall is a ride safety inspector who was contracted by Dreamworld to do their safety audits, including one just weeks before the accident.
He spoke to 7NEWS Spotlight in his first interview since the coronial inquest.
“The River Rapids ride was the lowest risk ride in the park,” Randall told Natalie Barr.
“That ride is one of 30 around world.
“They’ve all operated for 30 years – that’s 900 years of operation without incident.
“It was a very, very low risk ride, so it’s one of those freak accidents (and) one of those ones that we couldn’t even reproduce.”
The the Thunder River Rapids ride reached a critical moment of danger when a new staff member failed to press the emergency stop button in time.
Hitting it just a few seconds earlier would have saved four lives.
Queensland Coroner James McDougall’s 2020 report into the accident called Dreamworld’s safety practices “irresponsible”, “dangerous” and “inadequate”.
The Thunder River Rapids ride never operated again, and was demolished in 2018.
Sliding back into trouble
Dreamworld’s troubles didn’t end with Thunder River Rapids.
In September 2020, as Queensland’s borders finally re-opened after a COVID-19 shutdown, guests started trickling back through the gates.
Being annual ticket holders, Sarah and her family couldn’t wait to visit Dreamworld’s water park, WhiteWater World.
Sarah’s eight-year-old Tia was having a ball, joining her 10-year-old brother on one of the waterslides.
“She didn’t realise she was going down the most extreme one,” Sarah said.
At the top of the slide Tia let go and a huge volume of water propelled her down.
The injury she suffered at the bottom was horrific.
“(She was) bleeding everywhere … the force of the water pushed her legs apart and she said (she) couldn’t put them back together.”
Tia was rushed to hospital for surgery, where she remained for five days.
“I made sure that she fitted all the requirements – that she was the right height, right weight,” Sarah said.
“Accidents happen … I know they happen, but this is not an accident.”
Sarah is now suing Dreamworld’s owners Ardent Leisure.
‘No absolute safe’
No doubt the allure of roller coasters and theme parks is the danger and fear of the unknown.
But where do you draw the line?
“This is the balance of risk,” said ride inspector David Randall.
“There is no absolute safe, (but) I want to assure (the community) that we are the highest standard around the world.
“Manufacturers around the world are saying ‘you are too hard to supply to because you have so many safety systems in place to manage it’.
“It’s a matter of how far we go before we make it not any fun.”
Watch the full special 7NEWS Spotlight: Ride Of Your Life on 7plus.