Ride at your own risk: Tragedy at water park has parents calling for better oversight
PROVO, UT —
(KUTV) When then-13-year-old Gracie Colby and her friends went to the Seven Peaks water park in Provo in September of 2015, she was expecting a day of fun in the sun. Instead, it was a trip that devastated her life.
She was severely injured on a water slide.
A video of the accident shows Gracie shooting down the 'Sky Breaker Slide,' which drops riders rapidly before slowing them down into a thin pool of water at the bottom.
The water at the bottom didn’t work. Gracie shot nose-first into the unforgiving wall at the bottom of the slide.
Gracie's mother, Marie Colby, remembers the frantic phone call.
"I answered the phone and my oldest daughter, Cori, is saying, ‘Mom, Gracie’s been in an accident.’"
Gracie had to undergo reconstructive surgery to repair her face. Worse, she suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash.
“She was reverted back to the age of five, mentally, when it happened,” Marie said. “Now, she's usually between about eight and 10.”
Gracie is now 15, and the one-time honor student with a quick wit has an entirely new personality, says her dad, Arron.
"I lost my daughter," he said. "It's not fair."
"The daughter I had before the accident doesn't exist,” Marie said.
Stories of accidents at amusement parks are not unique. According to the Provo City Fire Department, Gracie's wasn't even the only emergency call to Seven Peaks in Provo that day.
Two others were also rushed to hospitals.
One patient hit her head on a slide, losing consciousness for about one minute, the call log says. The patient had to be lowered down the slide with a rope.
Another patient hit his shoulder on a slide and reportedly, "heard a pop and felt a tear.”
Gracie's ordeal is an exclamation point on what has become a troubling trend nationwide. A video that went viral in May shows a young man narrowly escaping injury after flying off the bottom of a slide and skidding along the concrete ground surrounding the slide.
Last year, a 10-year-old boy was killed riding a water slide at Schlitterbahn in Kansas City after launching off of the slide and crashing into some overhead netting.
Last month, Seven Peaks in Provo had to be evacuated after a chlorine leak. No one was injured in that incident, but a similar leak at a Seven Peaks park in Indiana last month left 12 people with chemical burns.
The local health department administrator in Indiana says they have also received claims that two children at that park broke their collar bones earlier in the month.
Get Gephardt wanted to investigate Utah state records of park safety inspections but found that none exist. Unlike many businesses, amusement and water parks have very limited oversight in Utah. They must abide by local health department codes, but when it comes to the safety of the rides and slides, there are no regulations. The parks do not answer to any government agency.
Utah is one of only nine states that does not have an agency with jurisdiction to oversee ride safety, according to saferparks.org.
Some in Utah find themselves turning to the courts after they being injured on a ride or slide.
According to court records, Seven Peaks, which operates two water parks in Utah, lists four open personal injury cases pending.
Neither Cowabunga Bay nor Cherry Hill are currently being sued for a personal injury tort.
Lagoon is facing five current lawsuits for alleged injuries at their park.
By phone, Lagoon's spokesperson stated that they self-regulate and that the park takes the responsibility seriously. He says that every single ride at Lagoon goes through multiple inspections each day and that, once per year, the park hires a third party company to inspect the entire park.
He says Lagoon doesn't want to get sued, which motivates the park to make safety a priority.
Despite five attempts to reach Seven Peaks for comment, Get Gephardt didn't hear back.
According to the company's website, riding the slide on which Gracie was injured, "there is a heightened risk of head neck or back injury."
Her parents have hired attorney Chris Dexter and are suing Seven Peaks. They think Seven Peaks should cover Gracie’s medical expenses, but they say they also want to make sure Seven Peaks is held accounatble so that what happened to Gracie doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Marie and Arron also say they think there should be laws in place, and state oversight of ride and slide safety.