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Consultant lauds safety improvement at Playland

White Plains Journal News

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October 17, 2007

WHITE PLAINS - Playland received high marks for safety from an independent consultant who reported yesterday that, despite a string of fatal accidents, conditions at the county-owned amusement park have improved dramatically in recent years.

The glowing report from safety consultant Jerry Aldrich found a "noticeable adjustment" in the approach of both management and staff toward safety since an audit three years ago and recommended only a handful of relatively minor changes to improve rider safety further.

"Certainly, it was a lot better facility than we saw three years ago," Aldrich told the Westchester Board of Legislators' parks committee. "And the attitudes were really just great."

Aldrich was hired by County Executive Andrew Spano to conduct an audit of the park after the June 29 death of 21-year-old Gabriela Garin on the Mind Scrambler ride. It was the third fatal accident on a ride at Playland Amusement Park since 2004.

The audit was one of two safety reviews of Playland that were initiated after Garin's death. The second, commissioned by the Board of Legislators, is expected to be released by the end of the month.

"I'm looking forward to seeing our audit, that we paid for, and comparing the two," said Legislator Judith Myers, D-Mamaroneck, a member of the parks committee.

County officials, who had argued throughout the summer that Playland was safe, said they were pleased by Aldrich's findings and were already working to implement his recommendations.

"We were nervous, no question about it, because (Aldrich) gets paid to tell us what he thinks," Westchester Parks Commissioner Joseph Stout said. "I'm very happy with it."

Aldrich's report did not directly address Garin's death or the other fatalities at the park in recent years. When asked afterward about the fatalities, he seemed to back the county's contention that the accidents were largely beyond the control of park managers.

"We in the industry need to make sure that our guests are as informed as they can be, through signage ... through written descriptions," Aldrich said. "And I think that our patrons need to take that information and use it."

In their reports on the June 29 accident, both the county police and the state Labor Department faulted the Mind Scrambler's teenage operator for starting the ride, even though he knew Garin was not properly seated. They also faulted Garin, who was an employee of ride owner S&L Amusements, for taking a ride on the Mind Scrambler while working and for not properly seating herself.

Garin's family has disputed those accounts, saying she was too responsible an employee to take such reckless actions.

Unlike his 2004 review, which was critical of Playland's management and found lax attentiveness to safety procedures at the park, Aldrich's latest audit found a climate that was far more concerned about proper procedures and professionalism.

Aldrich praised the park's implementation of a zone management system, which assigned supervisors to specific geographic areas of the amusement park and provided for greater accountability among the staff.

"This time we saw a different venue," Aldrich said. "We saw an attitude of employees, both management and front-line employees, who wanted to do things the right way."

While Aldrich gave generally positive grades to safety conditions at Playland, his report did note some areas where improvements could be made. Among them was a stronger, more forceful warning about the dark conditions on Ye Old Mill, site of a fatal accident in 2005.

Aldrich also recommended that the county enact stricter oversight of privately owned and operated rides at Playland. The Mind Scrambler was among the privately owned rides at Playland last season.

After Garin's death, Westchester officials announced plans to purchase or remove the last remaining privately owned rides at the park. Stout said yesterday, however, that the county might not be able to complete all the purchases by the start of next season.

"I don't know that we can chew it all off in one year," Stout said, adding that a final decision had not been made. "From an operational standpoint, it's too much to absorb in one season."

Aldrich's report recommended several changes in the placement of warning and height-requirement signs to make them more visible to both operators and patrons.

"I do believe Playland is a safe park," Adlrich said. "I sincerely do."

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