Halloween is coming up this Friday. Have fun but do so in a safe way. The story below can help us keep in mind the great tragedy that can happen when we don’t practice fire safety.
Six Flags haunted castle fire remembered 30 years later
Brett Bodner, @brettbodner 7:52 a.m. EDT May 15, 2014
JACKSON – For more than four decades, people have gone to Six Flags Great Adventure for a day of fun, riding roller coasters, playing boardwalk-style games and taking part in other amusements.
Thirty years ago, a day of fun turned into a day of terror and tragedy. Today marks the 30th anniversary of the fire that took the lives of eight teenagers trapped inside the Haunted Castle attraction on May 11, 1984.
Frank McDonnell, a fire official for Jackson’s Bureau of Fire Safety, was a 22-year-old volunteer for Jackson Fire Company 1 back in 1984. He remembers responding to the fire and says he couldn’t tell the difference between the prop skeletons and what was real.
“I assisted with the removal of bodies and will never forget the smell of burning tires and plastic,” McDonnell said. “Today, I make regular fire inspections at Six Flags Great Adventure.”
A report on the tragedy released by the National Fire Protection Association said the structure was made of 17 interconnected commercial trailers and plywood frames. Fire consumed a foam pad inside the Haunted Castle and spread through the structure.
Park President John Fitzgerald said the fire was a terrible tragedy. As a result, Six Flags has changed a lot since 1984, he said.
Six Flags Great Adventure has new ownership and an entirely new management team since the early 1980s, when it was owned by Bally’s Manufacturing.
“We have invested substantial resources in the safety of our operations and the training of our staff, and now we operate one of the safest family-entertainment facilities in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our guests and employees.”
Fitzgerald said the park’s in-house fire-safety team routinely checks for hazards and inspects all buildings and equipment.
“We work with certified, local fire inspectors who ensure that we are in compliance with all state and national fire codes,” he said. “We meet or exceed all fire regulations.”
Peter Smith, author of “Doorway to Hell: The Mysteries and Controversies Surrounding the Deadly Haunted Castle Fire at Six Flags Great Adventure,” said it’s still saddening, looking back on the fire.
“Everyone who was at Great Adventure that day and anyone who lives around here will never forget that day, as long as they shall live,” Smith said.
Criminal charges of aggravated manslaughter were filed against the company, but a Superior Court jury in Toms River returned a not-guilty verdict.
As a result of the tragedy, the state Legislature passed new fire-safety requirements for amusement buildings — such as haunted house — that required all structures designed to disorient, reduce vision, present barriers or impede the flow of traffic, be equipped with fire-detection and -suppression systems, as well as various other fire-safety provisions, McDonnell said.
After the fire, Six Flags Great Adventure updated park structures with equipment that includes sprinkler systems, smoke and heat detectors and emergency generators, and added an in-house fire brigade, according to McDonnell.
The New Jersey Uniform Fire Code also requires a certificate of occupancy be obtained before certain attractions are opened to the public.
“Drawings of the attraction are required, showing entrances/exits, electrical switches, circuit breakers, layout of the visitor path, location of alarm systems and manual pull stations, and the locations of fire extinguishers and telephones,” he said. “Fire safety and evacuation plans are submitted, with trained employees and staff conducting fire drills in case of an emergency.”
“Our safety record over the last 25 years speaks for itself and demonstrates our commitment to safety,” Fitzgerald said.
Now, the part of the park where the Haunted Castle was located, currently near The Dark Knight ride, has been closed off to the public, according to Smith.
“It’s (the fire) something that could have easily been avoided and … it’s a shame all of those people had to die for a national law to be written, the most strict fire code in the nation,” Smith said.