The Air Up There: Disneyland’s Express Airtram Disasters One and Deux
The Year: 1968
Mortem Methodia: Rotor Malfunction of Two Commercial Sikorsky S-61 Helicraft
The Tale of the Toetag:
Though discontinued due to financial strains at the crest of the seventies, one of the key attractions for park guests arriving from out of state or country was Disneyland’s Express Airtram feature. Boasting full service from Los Angeles International Airport to the nearby Anaheim/Disneyland heliport, the routes boasted a series of powerful modified four-rotor helicopters capable of packing twenty heads including tourists and crew members.
Up until the summer of 1968, the Magic Kingdom’s blackpox had been isolated incidents–easily reduced to half a column on national newspages and much more the stuff of campfire legends than real national tragedies. That sanctity hit a brick wall running in the May of the aforementioned year, when outbound Flight 851 suffered a main rotor hub malfunction. The lead-lag exchange of the rotors fell out of synchronicity, detaching fully from the swashplate and ripping into the fuselage like a punch through tinfoil. The helicraft made a death dive from two thousand feet, wiping out the entire payload of human life on impact. Thirty-some years after the fact, it remains a dark half of one of the greatest commercial air tragedies of American history.
The second half of that equation didn’t even wait until after the wake of the first. Roughly three months later, operating Flight 417 from LAX to the park suffered an unrelated incident also concerning rotor malfunction; this time, stress fatigue on a main rotor spindle caused a complete separation from the craft, sending it spiraling out of control and to the Earth. The shower of explosive debris touched down in Leuders Park in Compton, on a miraculously unoccupied playground–again, there were no survivors out of the twenty-one onboard.
Despite the Magic Kingdom’s incessant leaning towards the state of the art, there are a few attractions within the park’s borders that remain sacred. One such institution is Tom Sawyer’s Island, rising like a meditative citadel out of the Rivers of America, surrounded by works in progress and an endless wash of sweaty feet on the opposing concrete shores. Sawyer’s Island was once the premiere lure for young children of the Cold War Era and their fixation on cowboys and indians, Tom and Huck, and mysterious caves and forests–these days, it’s the only place in the entire resort where you can sit unmolested and indulge a game of checkers.
The island also has a potent tradition of being the spot of choice for those daring or drunken enough to try and evade Disney security’s nightly sweep of the property. Though these days the simple patrol of employees with flashlights has been replaced by a platoon of scubamen with thermal imaging goggles, trained dogs and speedboats with spotlights at the prow, it doesn’t deter guests from giving it the old frat effort. As a matter of fact, attempting to hide out on Tom Sawyer’s Island remains the single highest cause of incarceration by Disneyland police: overshadowing the smuggling of alcohol into the park, incidents of physical violence and even shoplifting.
Though as alluded to, there was a simpler time in all aspects of the equation. Spending a night on Tom Sawyer’s Island was exactly what Brooklyn teenager Bogden Delaurot had in mind when he and his ten-year-old brother eluded the final call for deporting rafts and used the stucco catacombs of Injun Joe’s caves to evade the usual employee searches. Unfortunately, nightfall wasn’t all it had cracked up to be, and the Delaurot boys became bored with their surroundings. Bogden suggested that they swim back to the welcome shores of New Orleans Square, apparently believing that nobody would question two kids emerging from the black waters to join the usual bevy of visitors.
Regardless of the logic (or lack thereof) involved, the boys headed into the water despite the fact that the younger Delaurot couldn’t swim. Bogden tried to carry him on his back, but for reasons undisclosed even today, succumbed to fatigue and sank five feet to the concrete bottom of the river. His brother was hauled out of the water around ten PM, exhausted by breathing, and made a full recovery after his consequent arrest.
Bogden wasn’t so fortunate. It took a collaboration of Anaheim police, firemen and park employees armed with boats and searchlights a projected eight hours to finally find his corpse where it had been carried by the turbine-produced flow of the water–wedged between rocks at the start of the fake rapids.
Yet the most astounding thing of the entire odd affair is that poor Bogden wouldn’t be the last to succumb to the danger of the ridiculously shallow body of water. More on that in about ten years.
Of all the superstructures within the confines of the Happiest Place on Earth, none has housed as many storied failures and experiments as the massive Cylindome building that squats over the rear of Tomorrowland. In the park’s half-century of operation, it has been a Mission to Mars, a showcase for General Electrics concepts of a futuristic techno-Eden, a dangerous visit through the gloriously cheesy mainframe world of TRON, and most recently an exposition of cutting edge trinkets and entertainment innovations.
However, of all the various guises it’s been saddled with over the years, none has clocked in so high on the kitsch meter as the America Sings! tenure of the seventies and eighties. A sort of a Small World v2.0, the attraction featured a rotating network of six theaters that revolved around a central stage. Guests would sit down and watch the show while the building made its gradual revolution, visible due to its loud design of deco stripes and circles on the concrete skin outside.
Deborah Gail Stone was a recent grad from the local flavor and the picture-perfect image of Disney’s ideal employee. Glee club and a top tenth percentile student, she’d concluded her studies at the top of her class and segued easily into her job as an America Sings! hostess on the evening shift.
What happened next is, as so many of these accounts are, debated from article to article. Whether or not Stone’s lack of training or simply a bad step were to blame for what ensued is unknown, but at some point during an intermission on her shift’s shows, she ended up on the wrong side of the audience revolution mechanism and was consequently caught between the proverbial wall and a hard place.
The machinery was powerful enough to move an entire three floors of architecture. As one can imagine, it took a considerable fraction of that impressive torque to mangle Deborah beyond any sort of physical recognition–coworkers didn’t realize what had happened until hours later, when what was left of their departed coworker was finally found. In standard Disney fashion, the ride was closed for a couple of days while warning klaxons were installed backstage, then when chugging merrily along until the demise of the attraction years later.
The chronicle of Grad Night horrors is well documented in the phenomenal bible of underground Disneyania ‘Mouse Tales’. A must-read for any morbid soul with a taste for poison trivia, the author takes especially deadpan glee in reading off an endless parade of anecdotes about drunken carcasses scattered in the park’s bushes at daybreak, the abundance of pot smoked on rides like the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Ghost House, as well as the universal proliferation of kinky sex in every venue imaginable. The events also hold a much more dubious honor: no single private event in the park is host to more unfortunate injuries and deaths.
Although the presumed allure of the PeopleMover during a graduation takeover of the Magic Kingdom would be hopes for a nice view of the Anaheim skyline and a hummer, the usual proliferation of the drunken testosterone penned another chapter of the ride’s storied existence in blood during the summer of 1980.
Gerardo Gonzales had presumably never heard of the name Ricky Lee Yama when he boarded the sluggish trail of candy-painted tram cars that night, which is a shame. Aside from sparing his parents the embarrassment of recounting his story to relatives at the wake, it would have also denied an opportunity for ironic history to repeat itself. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.
Gonzales and a few friends were pacing the couplings between cars through the “Superspeed” tunnel (Later to become the TRON portion of the ride) when he lost his footing and was dragged beneath the meandering boxcars. But unlike the Yama incident, Gerardo was still alive after being spat out at the rear of the tram from several eyewitness testimonies–unfortunately, this merely ensured that he had the unpleasant opportunity to watch the arrival of the next series of cars. Unable to move from the tracks, he was run down again and dragged for hundreds of feet before the attraction was finally shut down.
The sheer absurdity that the most passive ride in the park would have the privilege of claiming not one, but two deaths due to rider negligence caused attendants to start referring to the ride as the “PeopleReMover” until its eventual conversion to the Rocket Rods.
As anyone who’s ever braved the volcanic concrete and sweaty close quarters of a summer weekend visit to Disneyland can attest, it’s a miracle that there haven’t been more homicides within park gates. Aside from the pressure cooker provided by short-fused normals trying to elbow their way into food lines and the usual tension that Johnny Suburb, the wife and the three kids will bring to any herd situation, the Magic Kingdom also suffers another affliction: the unnecessary need to fuck up someone else’s good time.
A practice employed mostly by roving hordes of bored teenagers, rednecks and frat fuckers, the challenge presented by any amusement park entity is considerable. An institution that guarantees trouble-free interaction is just too good an offer to pass up for perro aguayo pissants, and so it happens. A push. A shove. A leer. Before you know it, some bitch who just couldn’t make it through half a day without overcompensating has ended up dead.. if you’re at Six Flags, that is.
Disney’s education in the perils of bull mentality preceded the laughable series of misfortune at Magic Mountain in the nineties by a good decade. It only took one homicide–and the media circus and lawsuit that came attached–for the Walt Estate to wise up and transform their idyllic park into a subtle security stronghold. In these fine modern times, anyone with a questionable beanie, manner at the admission gate or shady eye color will be on a sort of a mutant probation, chalked up by the unseen world of the glass eye as a potential troublemaker. Disney kills problems off miles before they began, but when Mel Yorba made the wrong move in 1981, there was no such gestapo to break up the situation before it turned deadly.
Yorba was attending the park during a private celebration for Anaheim’s contractor union population with a group of friends on March 7th of the aforementioned year. Yorba fit the standard profile of a bored punk kid as it’s come to be recognized by park authorities–roaming the grounds with his pals, he’d been looking to start a problem since earlier in the evening. Yorba made the biggest mistake of his life when he got what he was looking for around the line for the Matterhorn.
Mel was allegedly passing the chained area for waiting guests when he pinched the butt of an attractive girl. Her boyfriend, James O’Driscoll a 28-year-old drywaller from the area, presumably took offense and chased Yorba and his cronies through the park. Eventually, he managed to seize one of them by the sleeve, and Yorba took the opportunity to sucker-punch O’Driscoll in the jaw. With James on the asphalt, Yorba and his crew gained some space on their adversary and continued onward. O’Driscoll wasn’t about to let the situation blow off after taking the blow, and after his girlfriend pointed out Yorba as her fresh assailant, he charged the group and seized the teen by his shirtfront.
Yorba landed another fist to O’Driscoll’s jaw, but James managed to drag Mel down with him on this trip to the ground. Yorba tackled him there, and with his friends cheering him on, commenced the tussle. It was decidedly short-lived. And so was Yorba.
O’Driscoll was through with the party games by the time Yorba allegedly starting trying to choke him, and drew an eight-inch hunting knife from his ankle. Later testimony in court stated that Yorba fell on the blade while the two struggled, but regardless of the intent behind them, the stab wounds went deep and went mortal. Yorba was run through in his chest and in his stomach, and as O’Driscoll fled the scene, horrified onlookers moved to attend to the injured youth.
The sordid little occurrence doesn’t end here. While O’Driscoll was ditching the evidence in the moat around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, a registered nurse who was visiting the park came to Yorba’s aid, applying pressure to the wounds. When park security did finally arrive on the scene, they took up positions to keep the stunned crowd at bay as they tried to help the nurse. It was another twenty minutes before the Disney EMT crew joined the death in progress. A brief appraisal of the situation and they decided that Yorba had to be taken to a nearby hospital… in a Disneyland First Aid van.
The vehicle had no warning lights, no siren, no lifesaving equipment in its rear and allegedly followed all posted speed limits and red lights en route to the medical center. When it did finally arrive eleven minutes after leaving the park, more than half an hour after Yorba had been stabbed, it was too late. Mel Yorba was pronounced dead on the scene, and the media began buzzing about like angry carrion flies looking to inject some maggots into the tragedy.
As you’d expect, Yorba’s family took Disneyland to court over the incident. In a legal stereo limbo, O’Driscoll was also taking the stand to testify in his own murder trial a mere floor down in the courthouse, alleging that Yorba had rolled over onto the brandished blade.. twice. Simultaneously, the Yorba wrongful death suit was being clinched with damning evidence that Disney DID have procedures for summoning trained paramedics to the park during life-threatening situations, contrary to numerous media reports–they simply hadn’t been followed due to the on-duty nurse’s inexperience. The jury didn’t buy the defense in either case, and O’Driscoll was sentenced to eight years on a second-degree murder charge (Shaved down due to the fact that he did not instigate the fatal incident) and Disney was nailed with a $600,000.00 payday for the parents of the fallen teenager.
Disney instantly appealed, and the Yorbas were unable to ante up anything more in legal fees–consequently, the case was closed with what was deemed “a generous cash settlement”. Thus ended the only legitimate homicide to ever mar the parkgoing experience of the Magic Kingdom’s guests.
Even with a steady diet of capsized canoes and other comical mishaps, the Rivers of America hadn’t hosted a genuine tragedy since Bogden Delaurot went under an even decade earlier. That all changed in the June of 1983, during the stumbling excesses of another annual Grad Night.
It was June, and Phil Straughan was attending the twenty-thousand student bash with a double purpose: his graduation and his eighteenth birthday. Apparently unaware of the legendary foibles of alcohol, inflated sense of immortality and Disneyland by dark, Phillip and a friend boatjacked a unattended rubber maintenance raft around the Tom Sawyer’s Island cove and took it for a joyride around the Rivers of America. Boozed up and lacking any real visibility on the dark waters, Straughan ran headlong into a plaster-casted rock and was hurled over the prow. In the same inexplicable fashion that had claimed his predecessor, Phil hit the water and never came up–a double mojo considering that he was not only a jock, but didn’t have the extra weight of a passenger on his back. Regardless, Straughan’s graduation night turned out to be another fatal celebration of youthful impetus, as he promptly drowned in less than four feet of water.
And the weirdest thing was, the Rivers of America weren’t done claiming tourist lives just yet.
When it comes to the tender of Disneyland urban legend, nothing provides such a vivid opportunity for off-the-cuff bullshitting as the holy triumvirate of old school rollercoasters that make up the backbone of the park’s attraction base. They are the Mountains: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain and the mighty Matterhorn.
I’ve heard a lot of different crap from a lot of different people considering stories passed down from friends of friends of parents of cousins of wallpaperers and so on. My personal favorites are the oft-recounted testimonies of exploding heads: like cockroach eggs bursting from a poor chick’s cheek, it always involves the same basic elements. Head clearance, high velocity, and lack thereof. Sometimes the victim is a kid stricken down in the prime of his life, other times it’s an adult who didn’t know any better–regardless of the details, the axle of the tale is always the skull being detonated like a watermelon on impact.
It’s always fun to try and talk some sense into these sorts of stories, and a fool’s errand besides. Instead, I like to offer the wild-eyed narrator something with a little more beef to it. Something they can find in any apocrypha of bizarre deaths in popular culture. Usually, I’ll go with the Mark Maples incident. But when the mere macabre isn’t enough, Dollie Young’s story is the anecdote of choice.
Young was a 47-year-old mother visiting the park with her kid and a few friends. Like Mark Maples, she met an unexpected and horrific end on the supersonic bobsled workings of the Matterhorn; unlike Maples, however, it wasn’t due to the repercussions of an idiot urge. Young was riding in the rear compartment of the coupled sleds with her child when her safety belt came undone–with terrific force, she was snapped out of the bucket seat on a particularly nasty turn and ended up sprawled on the tracks. As she tried to regain her footing, a second bobsled burst down the tunnel and utterly flattened her, its velocity carrying it over her mangled body a full car’s length before coming to a hobbled halt.
As a morbid addendum, the only evidence of Dollie Young’s demise was her feet, poking out at skewed angles from beneath the sled. As it had been with the PeopleMover, the Imagineers design hadn’t been executed with this sort of tragedy in mind, and the entire section of track had to be dismantled in order to remove the corpse.
While Disney had overhauled its in-park procedures for handling potential gang incidents after the Mel Yorba murder, they failed to give the oceanic sprawl of the Magic Kingdom’s main parking lots the same sort of diligent attention. Even on the page, the asphalt desert was trouble: something like a mile wide, packed with cars and low visibility at night. Despite the fact that there had been multiple carjackings, robberies and fights in the shadowy corners of the expansive lot, Disney didn’t beef up security until after another fateful encounter between bored teenagers looking to rile up trouble with one another.
Much attention is spread over the proliferation of Latino and African-American gangs in Southern California, but it’s arguable on a dozen levels that their ghetto rivalries pale in comparison to the ages-old conflicts between Islander sects. The Tongans and Samoans have been killing each other for centuries, a trend that continues enthusiastically into today. The story was no different fourteen years ago, when the rivalry flared up at the Magic Kingdom to deadly results.
The instigation was offense taken at a baseball cap worn by an 18-year-old Samoan named Keleti Naea by a gang of Tongans at the park entrance around closing. Amidst an ebb of hundreds of tourists and park staff, a fistfight broke out between Naea and the Samoans, but was quickly squelched by astute security.
As Naea and his cohorts made their way out into the parking lot, they again caught sight of a Samoan who had pulled a 22. caliber pistol during the park confrontation, and moved to intercept him. The Samoan, Salesi Tai, drew the gun again at the approach of the Tongans and licked a shot–unfortunately, he missed badly, and the bullet struck a fourteen-year-old boy who was walking to his car with his family about fifty yards away. The boy survived the gunplay. Salesi would not.
The Tongans moved fast and jumped Tai to the asphalt. The gun fell on the ground, where it was quickly retrieved by Naea and put to homicidal use: five shots struck Salesi Tai in the side, neck and back. He was rushed to a hospital (And as it should be noted, by ambulance) but died soon thereafter from excessive loss of blood. It was one day after his sixteenth birthday.
Keleti Nea was apprehended later, and found guilty of second degree murder. He’d end up serving seventeen years to life for the killing, and won’t be eligible for parole until 2003. The scene of the murder has since been smoothed over, as Disney finally rid themselves of the treacherous parking lot expanse by transforming it into the new California Adventure themepark.
A Decade Without Incident Comes Crashing Down: Lieu Thoy Vuong and the Columbia
The Year: 1998
Mortem Methodia: Head trauma
The Tale of the Toetag:
After the Tai killing, Disneyland finally seemed to find an equilibrium with itself. Through the early and mid nineties, the Happiest Place on Earth enjoyed a decade without incident, while its rivals in the amusement park arena seemed to be in the news for various scandals every month: a riot at Six Flags here, a shooting at Knott’s Berry Farm there. Disney was doing the same overstuffed business it always had, but due to new security statutes and preemptive policies towards potential troublemakers, it hadn’t been splashed over the front page for the wrong reasons in some time.
The Lieu Thoy Vuong tragedy set itself apart from the other dark spots on Disneyland’s otherwise chipper history for a few reasons. It occurred in a painfully unjust and ironic fashion, specifically the Christmas Eve of that year. It was also the first time that an employee’s negligence or error had proven fatal for a Disneyland park Guest. And unlike the uncertain legal waters of the Mel Yorba murder, the Mouse did pay for this deadly accident.
The clipper Columbia is one of the Magic Kingdom’s more b-grade attractions, but still does a good head of business. Setting sail around the Rivers of America along with its harbormate, the steamship Mark Twain, the Columbia has played host to marriages, birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and almost every other conceivable sort of celebration. Christmas loomed, and the park’s celebration schedule was in full swing–a packed dock stood ready and waiting to board the incoming ship for a tour of the surrounding manmade forests and other sights.
As the clipper rolled around the bend, it cast its mooring line as it had thousands of times before. What happened next was never specifically determined–whether the rope was cast too early or the boat’s speed slowed too late, the anchor was pulled severely taut around the mooring plug. The ship continued to overshoot its mark, and the pressure was too much for the wood to stand: in an instant, the mooring cleat was ripped clean from the dock and snapped like a bungee cord into the waiting bevy of tourists.
It’s actually a miracle that only a handful of people were hurt, considering the numbers’ game. Ms. Lee Thuy Vuong, aged forty-three, caught the worst of it, as part of her jaw and face was completely sheared clean by the explosive chunk of pig iron. Her husband was also injured, as was a nearby cast member. Vuong was taken to the hospital, but the extent of her injury told its own story–by New Year’s Eve, she was declared braindead and the plug pulled. Disney didn’t even try to fight this round in court, choking out a check in the six-to-seven digit neighborhood to try and stymie the blemish on their good name.
Of all the attractions in the park, it’s ironic that the docile Rivers of America remains the mortal champion, sitting atop the Matterhorn and PeopleMover’s pair of fatalities with three confirmed deaths of its own.
So, what does it all sum up to? Not much, actually. As anyone can tell you, you’re still more likely to get flushed forcibly out of the shitter of a 747 than you are to eat your final piece of cake at Disneyland. And there is that pesky matter of responsibility: despite legalities, despite the tales of the media and despite the spin laid on it by sensationalist writing scabs looking to take a swing at the Mouse’s Empire, all but two of the actual deaths within park limits could have been avoided had the victim simply followed the park rules. For those who assert their lives as someone else’s responsibility have a rude awakening coming in this foul little world–especially when and where they least expect it.
It’s definitely something to consider the next time you get the urge to challenge six thousand tons of steel, plaster and plastic moving at high speeds. It might not only save your life, it might also save your family a lifetime of being the people whose son, daughter, brother or sister was that kid who bit the bullet on It’s a Small World. And hell… shouldn’t that be reason enough?
(An absolutely huge and indispensible amount of credit goes to the following sources, in terms of inspiring this morose little travelogue: Mouse Tales: David Koenig, Bonaventure Press, 1995. LA Bizarro: Anthony R. Lovett and Matt Maranian, St. Martin’s Press, 1997. And a special thank you to http://www.snopes.com and everyone at the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society.)