Paul Beckstead watched in helpless horror as his 6-year-old son, Ryan, died Sunday.
Witnesses said Beckstead hopped the fence surrounding a Farmington amusement park children's roller coaster and was trying to reach his boy when the child was struck and killed by the ride.But Beckstead's heroics were in vain, according to Travis Merrill, a West Bountiful resident, whose children were on the same Lagoon Amusement Park ride and who witnessed the tragedy. Merrill also said the accident occurred after parents and riders thought it was time to get off.
"Puff the Little Fire Dragon," a low-speed children's coaster, had made two rounds around the track and came to a complete stop, but some of the cars had come to rest past the end of the platform, said Wanda Gambrell, who was visiting with Merrill from Alabama and also had children on the ride.
At that point, Ryan apparently thought his turn on the ride was over and stood up, trying to get out of his seat. Gambrell said she too thought the ride had finished and began walking toward the ride because her children were in the front cars that had gone past the platform. She feared they might hurt themselves if they tried to exit from the ride.
That's when the 18-year-old female operator reportedly asked, "Do you want to go another time?"
According to Farmington Police Sgt. Jeff Jacobson it was the operator's first year at Lagoon and her first weekend on the job.
About that same time Ryan had "one foot in and one foot out" of the last car and attempted to get back in the car as it started to move up an incline. He fell out of the back car, slipping down through the tracks, Merrill said.
Gambrell saw the same thing. "The little boy started to get out of the ride. He turned to get back in. As it was going up the incline he was thrown to the tracks. He fell through and had grease on his face," she said.
Parents nearby started screaming at the operator to stop the ride. As the ride was
making its 10- to 12-second return to the station Ryan was attempting to climb up through the tracks as the front car struck him. Two siblings remained in the car where the boy had been and were unharmed.
"The child was not horseplaying; he was getting off the ride," Gambrell said.
Eyewitness accounts that Ryan's father tried to save his son conflicted with statements given to the press that initially indicated the boy's parents were not in the area when the accident happened. Lagoon officials confirmed Tuesday Ryan's parents were nearby.
"The girl (operator) tried to put on the brakes, but it was too late. She collapsed to the ground. Before that she was on the phone screaming, `I killed a little boy.' The mother started saying, `You killed my baby. Oh God, my little boy,' " Gambrell said.
Police started reconstructing the accident Sunday, checking the brakes on the ride and interviewing witnesses, said Farmington Police Chief Val Morton. Additional timing and braking tests on the coaster ride were carried out by investigators Monday to determine if the ride could have been stopped in time to save the child's life.
"We found no criminal negligence on the part of either Lagoon or the operator," said Jacobson, noting that police and the Davis County attorney's office have found no reason to file criminal charges against the ride operator or Lagoon Corp. Issues of civil negligence and liability would have to be resolved by the courts in the event a lawsuit is filed by the parents.
Jacobson told the Deseret News Wednesday that investigation confirmed accounts given by Gambrell and Merrill. The boy had lost his balance, fell back out of the car striking the rails and then the ground. He then tried to climb up between a space between the platform and the tracks as the car approached.
By the time the operator perceived the problem, he said, "there was no time left to react to remedy the situation."
He said apparently the ride operator was so involved in her work she did not hear parents yelling or notice the child was out of the ride until the coaster had already started in its free fall.
Dick Andrew, Lagoon marketing director, explained that it is impossible to brake the ride once it goes over the top of the incline until it comes back into the station. The gravity-driven ride can only be stopped by a mechanism at the station platform.
Ann Rowell, an aunt of Paul Beckstead, said that the death has shaken the family. She said Paul and Christine Beckstead had tried to have children for five years before Ryan came.
"They bought him a season ticket to Lagoon because he loved to go to Lagoon. The were really wonderful parents. It is a tragedy. It is too bad it happened. He was a special little fellow," Rowell said. "He was a happy-go-lucky little boy. When he came they just reveled in him."
The manufacturer of the ride, contacted Monday, told Lagoon officials that is the first fatality ever reported on the ride located in theme parks around the world.
Lagoon is the only park in North America to have asked the manufacturer to install extra safety equipment on the cars, Andrew said.