The Tragic History of New Jersey Amusement Park Deaths

Theme parks and roller coasters. The epitome of thrilling family fun and fond memories. Especially here in New Jersey, home to world-class boardwalks, family parks and the great Six Flags adventure.

Unfortunately, throughout history, several high-profile accidents have occurred at New Jersey theme parks. Some have even been fatal.

Probably the most infamous tragedy was the Great Adventure haunted castle fire on May 11, 1984. Eight teenagers were trapped and killed in the inferno.

Three years later, on June 17, 1987, a 19-year-old woman fell from one of the Lightnin’ Loops roller coasters when an operator allegedly failed to secure her harness.

But I want to tell you about a little-known incident that preceded these two events. A park employee died exactly 40 years ago – on August 16, 1981 – while attempting something incredibly stupid and dangerous.

Rolling Thunder stood in the Frontier Adventures section of Six Flags Great Adventure from 1979 to 2013. In its heyday, it was a thrilling double-track wooden roller coaster. 96 feet tall, 56 mph top speed, over 3,300 feet long, and built with over 60 miles of Douglas fir lumber.

A view of the Rolling Thunder race track from the top of the lift hill, circa 2002. Taken during a “top walk” inspection in August 2002. (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)
A view of the Rolling Thunder race track from the top of the lift hill, circa 2002. Taken during a “top walk” inspection in August 2002. (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)

I have a special affinity for the much-missed Rolling Thunder. I spent three fantastic summers working for Six Flags, as ride operator and ride director. Chances are if you rode Rolling Thunder between 2002 and 2004, it was me who told you to stay seated with your hands, arms, and legs inside the ride at all times.

Sincerely, operating the Rolling Thunder roller coaster at Great Adventure, summer 2002. (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)
Sincerely, operating the Rolling Thunder roller coaster at Great Adventure, summer 2002. (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)

But long ago, during Rolling Thunder’s third operating season, Scott Tyler, a 20-year-old park employee from Middletown, NJ, was killed during a morning run.

The NJ Department of Labor and Industry issued a statement which read (as reported by The New York Times):

According to employees and other eyewitness accounts, all safety equipment was in place when the ride began… Investigation so far indicates that Tyler may have adopted an unauthorized riding position that n was not using the safety feature of the restraints.

A later OSHA report gave more details as they fined the park later that month:

Mr Tyler, who had worked at the park for several summers, was riding the Rolling Thunder roller coaster just before the park opened at 10 a.m. when he fell to his death. An autopsy revealed that he died of a fractured skull and multiple injuries. Officials estimated the car was traveling at around 35 miles per hour at the time of the crash and said Mr Tyler had not installed a crash bar before starting the test.

In other words? The daredevil came out of the lap bar, clinging to his life. Until the rollercoaster train reaches the high-speed turn and is ejected.

The coaster was thoroughly inspected by state officials, deemed structurally and mechanically safe, and reopened two days later.

Modern theme park rides have so many redundant safety features and procedures that it would be difficult for such a tragedy to happen again.

There is also a strange appendix to this story. Legend has it (among the Rolling Thunder crew) that the deceased operator haunted the ride. And that each year of the anniversary of his death – August 16 – something strange always happened.

And yes, I can confirm that the the strangest the breakdowns in my career as a ride operator happened on precisely that date. Ghost error messages, a broken proximity switch and a blown lift transformer.

This is the closest I know to “supernatural” events. that’s why National Roller Coaster Day has an unusual meaning to me and anyone familiar with the history of Rolling Thunder. (May she rest in pieces.)

Make it a nice day! (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)
Make it a nice day! (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)

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