By Rachel Hatzipanagos and Sofia Santana
As a Parkland girl was hoisted up a Wisconsin theme park’s free-fall tower, the net designed to catch her lay useless on the ground, authorities said.
A ride attendant unclipped the harness, and 12-year-old Teagan Marti plunged 100 feet, her back to the earth.
Police in the village of Lake Delton, near Madison, said they’re looking at “operator error by the ride attendant” in their investigation of the incident, which happened Friday and left Marti comatose for four days.
She came out of the coma Tuesday but was unable to move and could not speak because she was intubated, said attorney Stuart Grossman.
“She has so many spinal fractures,” he said, adding that Marti might be paralyzed.
Police said that although the incident at Extreme World amusement park appears to be accidental, the Sauk County District Attorney’s Office will determine whether charges will be filed.
Wisconsin safety codes governing amusement park operations state that it’s the park manager’s responsibility to train ride operators and test all rides each day before opening to the public. Also, ride operators must be 18.
In theme-park-heavy Florida, state laws do not specify any age or training requirements for ride operators.
None of Florida’s theme parks appear to feature the kind of free-fall tower Marti went on.
The Suspended Catch Air Devices, commonly referred to as SCAD towers, lift riders to the top, then a ride operator unhooks the rider’s harness for a 10-story, back-first, free fall.
The rider lands in a net suspended 40 feet above the ground that, from there, is slowly lowered to the ground so that the rider simply walks off the net, according to the website for Montic Hamburg, a German company that designs SCAD towers.
Montic states on its website that more than 20,000 people have safely done free-falls from its SCAD towers.
At least three people, including Marti, have been injured in the towers.
In 2002, a 13-year-old boy attending an amusement park trade show in Orlando fell 60 feet from a SCAD tower and landed in padding. He suffered a broken leg and bruises.
In 2003, a woman in California did a free fall, but when she landed, the safety net apparently was too close to the ground and it did not break her fall completely. The woman was hospitalized overnight but was not seriously hurt.
Although police said that it appears the Extreme World free-fall tower _ named Terminal Velocity _ was functioning properly when Marti went on it, Grossman said he is looking into what he considers flaws in the towers’ design.
The safety net, the attorney said, is designed to rise off the ground as a rider is hoisted by the tower. When the rider reaches a height of 140 feet, the safety net should be at 40 feet, Grossman said.
“For reasons that no one knows, when this device was at about 100 feet, the net had not gone up,” he said. “It’s also a design defect that would enable someone to release someone before that net goes up.”
The owner of Extreme World could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and it was not known how long the tower had been at the park.
Marti’s family went to the park during a family vacation, and her father, sister, and mother watched in horror as she plummeted to the ground.
“As soon as this happened and she hit the ground, I just fell to the ground,” Marti’s father, Dr. Alex Marti, told The Wisconsin State Journal. “The thud was horrific,” he said, and he feared his daughter was dead.
Teagan Marti, who is set to enter the sixth grade at Westglades Middle School in Parkland, is being treated at The American Family Children’s Hospital at the University of Wisconsin.