An inquest into the tragedy that killed 4 people at the Dreamworld theme park on the Gold Coast in 2016, began on Monday, June 18.
On Oct. 25, 2016, a six-person raft in the theme park’s Thunder River Rapids ride collided with an empty raft and flipped backwards. Cindy Low, Kate Goodchild, Luke Dorsett, and Roozi Araghi died instantly.
Queen’s Counsel Ken Fleming who is assisting the inquiry told the court that the four tragic deaths were “sadly … both violent and unnatural,” reported News.com.au. He said the tragedy had been “felt Australia-wide,” and the main goal of the inquest would be to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.
The first day of the investigation found that a Dreamworld ride operator was unsure which emergency button to press when the raft collision occurred. According to Detective Sergeant Nicola Brown, who is the principal police investigator on the case, the operator and other staff at Dreamworld received a memo just days before the tragedy about the ride’s emergency immediate shutdown button—“don’t worry about that button, no one uses it.” The memo told them not to press the emergency stop button unless there were certain specific circumstances.
The tragic incident occurred near the end of the ride after one of two large pumps that were feeding water into the ride failed. As a result, an empty raft that was in front of the six-person group’s raft was no longer buoyant and became stuck on the rails near the unloading point of the ride. The two rafts eventually collided.
“Ms Goodchild, Ms Low, Mr Dorsett, and Mr Araghi were caught in the mechanism of the ride and were either trapped in the raft or ejected into the water beneath the conveyor,” Mr Fleming told the court at a pre-inquest hearing in Brisbane in April, the ABC reported.
“Each died almost instantly as a result of compressive and crushing injuries.”
Ms Goodchild’s 12-year-old daughter and Ms Low’s 10-year-old son had remained in the raft and survived.
Detective Sgt Brown said there was a period of about 57 seconds between the empty raft getting stuck on the conveyor and the collision, the Guardian reported. She said had the emergency button at the unloading dock outside the main control area been pressed, the rafts would have stopped moving along the conveyor belt within two seconds and the tragedy would have been prevented. But both the main ride operator, Peter Nemeth, and his colleague Ms Courtney Williams, had not pressed the button.
The main ride operator, Peter Nemeth, gave evidence in the second day of the inquest. He said he had pushed a button on the main control panel to stop the ride’s conveyor belt, but was surprised when it did not stop.
“It did not stop even though I pressed it two or three times,” he said, according to News.com.au.
Investigation by police found that the conveyor belt would take about nine seconds to completely stop after the button was pushed. Nemeth said he did not know about this.
“I am surprised to learn that,” he said. “I assumed the conveyor stop button would stop the ride instantly.”
Brown also said that just hours before the incident, the water pump had stopped working twice. The pump failed at 11:50 a.m. and then again at 1:09 p.m. before being reset.
“There’s no evidence any engineering staff attended the second incident [when the water pump stopped working],” she said. “Nothing else seems to have been done apart from resetting the pump.”
History of Malfunctions
The ride had a long history of malfunctions, including in 2001, 2004, and 2005.
In January 2001, several empty rafts collided and flipped during a dry run before the ride was open to the public. An internal staff email from 2001 was shown in court, where one staff member wrote, “I shudder when I think if there had been guests on that ride,” News.com.au reported.
Two latter incidents in 2004 and 2005 involved raft collisions, after which it was recommended that CCTVs be installed to oversee the unloading areas for the ride operators to monitor. But few if any of the recommendations were implemented, according to Brown. And even though there were recommendations ever since 1999 that the shutdown procedure should have been made simpler, there was no single emergency button to shut down the ride.
“Operators at the control panel had to take a number of steps to shut down the ride, there was nothing that shut down everything,” Brown said, according to News.com.au.
The court also learnt that the ride had no device to monitor water levels to warn staff or shut down the ride if the levels became too low.
Families of the four victims are expected to attend the two-week hearing.
The Queensland Government has passed industrial manslaughter laws since the deaths, meaning that corporations can be held accountable for deaths on-site. However, as the laws are not retrospective, it will not be able to be allied to this incident.
Coroner James McDougall will investigate multiple aspects of the incident, including the cause of the incident and the ride’s construction, maintenance and safety measures, and its staffing and history.
Dreamworld closed the park for 45 days after the incident and has since permanently shut down the Thunder Rider Rapids ride. Eight months after the tragedy, Deborah Thomas, the CEO of Dreamworld’s parent company Ardent Leisure, left the company.
Lawyers for Ardent Leisure said they would cooperate with the inquest, which is ongoing.