Big Thunder Mountain Locomotive

When taking a trip to an expensive theme park, you expect certain safety precautions to be put into place long before you ever board a ride. In today’s age, rides are safer than ever thanks to technological advances, but they’re also much safer due to learning from mistakes recorded in previous accidents. 

It really is a tragedy that ride safety features are created and updated following a loss of life or horrific accident on park grounds, but we, as the riders of today, must remember the lives of those lost in the seats we occupy and thank them for granting us a brighter, safer day at the park.

Big Thunder Mountain theming
Image: deror_avi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s topic of Dark Park History comes from Disneyland in Anaheim, California, on a long-beloved ride that still holds a presence in the parks to this day–Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. This ride has been operating in Disneyland since 1979 and has become a staple of Disney parks worldwide with incarnations later added in the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris.

Throughout its over fifty years of operation in Anaheim, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad saw a handful of incidents, including one which resulted in a five year old boy needing to amputate all of his toes on his left foot in 1998. The ride would operate without noteworthy issues for five years, until September of 2003 when a twenty-two year old man tragically lost his life aboard the ride.

Big Thunder Mountain train cars
Tyler, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

September 5 in Disneyland started as a day like any other. Two trains were running smoothly, and ride operators were preparing to add a third train to the track to help shorten the wait times for riders. This third train had been out of commission for a handful of days while undergoing a maintenance inspection, during which many parts of the train were taken apart and put back together once the process was completed. 

This could explain why two critical bolts on the train’s wheels were not properly tightened following the maintenance. A maintenance inspector cleared the train without properly inspecting the wheels, and the faulty train was added to the Railroad after three days. The train successfully completed its test runs and operators began filling the faulty train with riders. The train continued to operate without issue for several cycles through the circuit, with the unfastened bolts gradually becoming looser with the strain.

Interior Big Thunder Mountain
Jeremy Thompson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 Within the hour, ride operators began to take notice of a strange sound coming from the faulty train. Despite the noise, operators decided to allow the train to continue for a dozen more cycles before having it pulled from the track for maintenance to take a look at.

The faulty train completed the majority of the cycles, but on the second to last, one of the loose bolts detached, and by the climax of the circuit, the second bolt followed suit. Now missing two critical bolts, the guide wheel assembly broke off, but this went unnoticed by operators as they began refilling the seats for the next cycle.

The next train, full of twenty-four passengers, departed from the station. This was intended to be the train’s final circuit before being pulled for maintenance. Aboard the ride was 22-year old Marcelo Torres and his friend seated in the front row. The train began the cycle as usual and without issue until a stretch of track through an uphill tunnel. As the train continued through the dark tunnel, the broken wheel axle began to bump against the track, quickly resulting in the broken piece becoming wedged between the main locomotive and the track below, causing the train to derail. 

Momentum continued to push the train forward, but this resulted in the locomotive dipping down in the front and rising off the track in the back. The upturned locomotive slammed into the tunnel’s ceiling and the passenger cars continued pushing forward, shoving the front car underneath the rear of the locomotive and pinning Torres beneath the heavy machinery.

Big Thunder Mountain Locomotive
JeroenZ85, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All in all, ten passengers received injuries of varying degrees with many being rushed to the hospital. Torres suffered from extreme damage to the chest and lungs and unfortunately passed away as a result of this accident.

An investigation was quick to follow. Disney fully cooperated, and it was soon found that a number of issues were to blame. First, the maintenance crew was blamed for improperly tightening the screws of the broken wheel. Additionally, the maintenance manager responsible for clearing the train for operation was also found to blame due to the lack of thoroughness in his examination. Lastly, ride operators were also held accountable for not pulling the train from operation or contacting ride maintenance as soon as the unusual noise was heard from the faulty train.

As a result of this accident, Disney was quick to update their ride safety protocols to ensure something like this never took place again. Maintenance checks and clearance were to be much more thorough and required the machinery to be tested more than just visually before being returned to operation.

Tragedies such as these in popular theme parks are thankfully quite rare in recent years, but that does not mean they never occur. Though rides today are safer than ever, it is imperative to remember the reasons why. Many people like Marcelo Torres had to suffer the unimaginable in order for safety to be treated as such a high priority in theme parks of today, so it’s important to take a moment to reflect on those who came before.

Following this incident, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Anaheim, California has maintained an almost perfect track record for twenty years. For the sake of all current and future riders, let’s hope to keep it that way.


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