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Epidemiologic Notes and Reports Fatality at a Waterslide Amusement Park -- Utah

On August 16, 1985, a 14-year-old male, his younger brother, and two friends went swimming at a large waterslide amusement park in Ogden, Utah. The children were playing in one of the slide-receiving pools (splash pool) where the depth was 4 feet. The 14-year-old (weight 134 lbs. (61.0 kg.), height 5 ft., 2 in. (1.59 meters)) was hanging onto the pool edge, dangling his feet over the submerged opening of the middle of three drain pipes, when he let go and disappeared into the pipe. Once inside the pipe, he was carried horizontally 93 feet, where he lodged in a 90-degree vertical bend inside the pumphouse (Figure 1). After 15 minutes, he was located, but resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful. An autopsy determined the cause of death as drowning.

The waterslide park was constructed in 1984. Water from all six slides in the park drained into the splash pool where the boy was playing. The water then traveled by gravity through the three 12H-inch diameter polyvinyl pipes to a pumphouse where it was pumped to the top of the slides. The pipes were located in the side of the pool beneath a recessed overhang. Park employees reported that the cast iron grates covering the pipe inlets repeatedly fell off during the early part of the summer of 1985 because the cement eroded and, thus, was inadequate for holding the anchoring screws. As a result, the grates were removed. There were no other design features of the drainage system to prevent entry into the pipes.

Lifeguards were on duty at the time of the incident. The park was the seventh waterslide park designed by a company in Washington State, and its design met all local and state standards at the date of its opening in 1984. However, the park performed no routine checks of safety items.

An investigation of the death was led by the Weber-Morgan District Health Department, which had the statutory responsibility under Utah Code to "identify injury problems and develop standards for the correction and prevention of future occurrences." The final health department recommendations were (1) any drainage pipe with a diameter greater than 6 inches must have protective grating and backup entrapment prevention features that are approved by the health department before installation; (2) grates must be attached by a corrosive-resistant, secure anchoring system and must be attached so they cannot be removed by bathers; and (3) there must be a written record documenting monitoring of pool safety features. Reported by M Nichols, MD, C Heninger, R Schwartz, O Orton, Weber-Morgan District Health Dept, S Patterson, Building Inspection, S VanderHeide, Sheriff's Dept, V Gabrenas, Attorney's Office, Weber County, F Jackson, Utah Dept of Health; H Walters, Intermountain Region, US Forest Svc; Div of Injury Epidemiology and Control, Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note:According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), this is the third reported death associated with a waterslide amusement park. The first death reported to the CPSC occurred in 1980 and was similar to that reported here: a 13-year-old male became entrapped in an 8-inch by 24-inch pool drain. The other reported fatality was a 35-year-old male who fell off a corkscrew turn in a waterslide.

In most waterslide splash pools, the drainage pipe inlet is too small to allow entrapment. Because six slides were installed, a large volume of water was recirculated, and the pipes draining the Ogden waterslide were unusually large. A safer alternative design would be to have more pipes with smaller diameter.

This problem extends beyond waterslide amusement parks. Since 1983, CPSC has received 10 reports of serious injury and three reported deaths associated with swimming-pool or hot-tub drainage systems. All 13 reports involved children 14 years of age or younger. In six of these incidents, including all three fatalities, the cover to the drain pipe had been removed. In all 13 incidents, the suction holding the child against the drain pipe opening or entangling hair was the primary cause of injury.

Recirculation and drainage systems may remain a source of serious injuries or deaths unless operators ensure that all drainage or recirculation pipes are adequately covered at all times to prevent the possibility of entrapment. Also, adequate safety standards for the design and operation of recreational waterslides, spas and hot tubs, and swimming pools should be adopted by state and local authorities. These standards should focus in particular on proper design features to prevent injuries caused by entrapment.

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