Since Friday, Joane Rhoton's heart has been broken for a second, third and fourth time.

The first was 1 1/2 years ago, when her son was nearly killed during a rock concert in the Salt Palace.Add to that tragedy the sympathetic pain she felt when three people died from injuries suffered during a concert at the Salt Palace last week.

And while Michael Rhoton didn't die, Joane Rhoton believes some things are worse than death.

"They are the lucky ones," Rhoton said of the three who died from injuries suffered at the AC/DC rock concert Friday night.

Instead of death, her once strapping son lies semi-comatose in a local rehabilitation center. He has been in rehabilitation centers since suffering irreversible brain damage at a Cinderella rock concert in the Salt Palace on June 13, 1989. His medical bills, covered by Medicaid, already exceed $1 million and could go as high as $10 million.

"This is my $10 million son who could have been saved by $60," the cost, she believes, of staffing of another security guard or two at the balcony.

"My son's injury could have been avoided. Those kids' deaths could have been avoided. They (the Salt Palace) know they are going to have rowdy teenagers in there. There's drinking and drugs," Joane Rhoton said Monday night. "They need more security. But they are so tight with the dollar. They don't want to spend it."

To this day, the Rhotons don't know how Michael, 19, was hurt in the Salt Palace's Acord Arena that summer night.

Police reports contradict those of friends and eyewitnesses.

They know he was high - on music, alcohol, cocaine. And he was anxious to leave the balcony to join the pulsating crowd on the main floor. In fact, a friend held him by his ankles so he could reach ticket stubs handed up by some girls below. Security guards prevented him from entering through the ground doors.

But they couldn't keep Michael from the crowd.

When Cinderella began playing,he let out a Tarzanlike yell, bolted down the cement balcony stairs, and virtually flew over the metal railing, Joane Rhoton said. Michael fell some 13 feet, striking his head on the concrete floor below.

Some witnesses say he tried to do a handstand over the railing. His family believes he was accidently pushed or tripped on the unlaced shoelaces of his hightop tennis shoes. One shoe was found on the balcony; the other next to Michael on the ground floor.

Now new Nike hightops rest at the end of a hospital bed - his home for the past 1 1/2 years. Michael defied doctors' predictions he would die.

"Michael has refused to give up. He has refused to die. He had really hung in there," said Joane Rhoton, stroking her son's dark hair.

Fluid buildups in his brain and several subsequent surgeries hampered Michael's progress. For many months he barely hung on - communicating only with his dark eyes, which plead for help.

But since December, the family's seen measurable progress. He blinks his eyes "yes" and "no," presses Mom's hand when asked a question, and points. His ability to hear and understand is good. When given a verbal command, he responds. He arm-wrestles with Dad and tightly squeezes his Hacky-sack ball.

Some days the family is cautiously optimistic. They daily sit by his side but refrain from setting long-range goals.

"I haven't tried to have a lot of hope. I've tried to just take it one day at a time. This is the first time we've had some substantial progress to where we could get some hope," Joane Rhoton said. "But there's no telling how long it will last. Things could change tomorrow."

What saddens the family is that Michael's accident apparently didn't change anything at the Salt Palace. Accidents keep happening.

"They will never shut the concerts down because they make too much money. Money is more important than people," Joane Rhoton said. "Michael was just being an obnoxious 18-year-old, and they should have kicked him out of the Salt Palace that night. The portal he went over should have had a security guard by it."

Joane Rhoton is convinced that for $60 the Salt Palace could have had another security guard or two by that balcony railing.

Salt Lake attorney Robert B. Sykes has filed notice of intent to sue Salt Lake County on behalf of the Rhotons.