Amusement Park Journal - Vol. 6 - No. 2
"Fire in the Haunted Castle"
It was a slow evening at the Haunted Castle walk-through in a wooded area of the Great Adventure amusement park, Jackson, New Jersey. Little did park fun-seekers know that May 11, 1984, would go down in park history as an evening of tragedy. The castle's employees in white stage makeup and dressed in shrouds, capes and hoods had opened only one side of the castle because of the small crowd. There still wasn't much action as the park started to light up at twilight.
The Haunted Castle looked substantial, but hidden behind its cream-colored facade of turrets, skulls and ghoulish mannequins were 17 over-the-road trailers. The facade was actually supported by wooden beams like a Hollywood set.
The trailers were the type used to haul freight and were 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 12 feet, 9 inches high. The display was built by The Haunted House Company of East Orange, New Jersey, and was made of cement and fiberglass "with special attention paid to fireproofing."
One of the trailers served as the entrance to both sides, while eight trailers on each side contained the dimly-lit maze. The entrance was guarded by two monstrous figures. The pair, with green heads, fangs and leering faces, were clad in gray shrouds. Upon entering, the patrons threaded their way through a sometimes pitch-black maze with low ceilings and uneven floors. Four or five employees, who were clad as monsters and demons, would lunge out from time to time at frightened patrons.
The New York Times in its May 13, 1984, edition reported, "Some of those caught inside were uncertain at first whether the first signs of trouble were real or just part of the act."
"After walking for a while something was choking us," said Joan Minter, 20, of Brooklyn, who was there with four friends. "Being that it was a haunted castle, we thought it was something to scare us. We started choking and it began burning our eyes. I started screaming, 'I'm Choking!' I knew something wasn't right."
Miss Minter said she and her friends began running through the dark, bumping one another and striking walls in their growing panic.
"I stumbled and fell and got up and just kept running," she said. "I saw a light then I was outside. I was coughing and rubbing my eyes and I turned to see if we all got out and I looked at the castle and it went up in flames."
A half-dozen patrons also escaped, along with the attraction's employees, who were said by the management to have helped some of the patrons out.
Another person who narrowly escaped the fire was Patricia Lynch, 18, from suburban New York. Miss Lynch told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she and three friends entered the Haunted Castle moments before the fire broke out about 6:30 p.m. On entering, she said, she encountered a cave-like room with a skeleton figure in it and a ghoul-like creature who spoke to them.
Moving along the narrow corridor, Miss Lynch said, she saw smoke. "It was like a smoke bomb," she said. "The people in back of us were really jumpy. We just turned the corner and saw flames."
"They thought it (the smoke and flames) was part of the Haunted Castle," she said. "When those pressing forward realized the fire was real," she said, "I was pushed against the wall by people trying to get out."
She said people ran past her. She and her friends groped toward the entrance. "The corridors are fairly close together," Miss Lynch said. "You could basically put your hand out and feel the wall."
"That's where the problem occurred," she said. "Everyone was trying to push through. And there wasn't enough room."
Miss Lunch and six others were treated at Freehold Area Hospital for smoke inhalation and released.
Eight teenagers, including seven males and one female, weren't as lucky. These were the unlucky victims trapped in trailer 5405. Seven of the victims were found huddled in a corner of the trailer only 20 feet from an emergency exit and the eighth was found a short distance away, park officials said. The fire turned the trailers into ovens where the victims' bodies were burned beyond recognition. One of the rescue workers estimated temperatures reached 2,000 degrees in the fire.
Operations at the park continued and thousands of patrons took time out from their fun to watch as barriers were put up around the burning attraction and firemen poured water on the flames. The fire burned out of control for more than an hour and was declared under control at 7:41 p.m.
Jerry Wolkowitz, a park patron, said he saw flames leaping 100 feet in the air. "Thick black smoke was billowing up. You could see the huge flames," he said.
About 15,000 patrons were in the park at the time, park officials said. They said they had not ordered an immediate evacuation because there appeared to be no danger of the fire spreading to nearby attractions. Witnesses told of bizarre contrasts during the firefighters' grim task; screams of hilarity from the nearby Freefall and other rides, the blare of rock band from the Music Express and shouts of the pitchmen from the nearby arcade.
First to fight the fire was the park's fire company. Over 15 companies from Jackson Township and surrounding communities as well as 20 first aid and rescue squads responded to the fire.
The park was closed at 8:00 p.m., two hours early. Patrons were given free tickets to return to the park at another date.
Firefighters and rescue workers, laboring under floodlights, said they were hampered in their search for victims because mannequins in the haunted house looked like real bodies.
Since positive identification couldn't be made of the victims, officials decided to hold back the story for several hours to give park patrons a chance to return home. When the story was finally released, state police and park officials received calls from hundreds of parents whose children had not come home. It took several days to make positive identification of the eight victims.
The irony in every amusement park accident is that patrons at an amusement park are there to have fun. The last thing that the owner of Great Adventure, Six Flags, and the developer of the attraction, the Haunted House Company, wanted was a fire and the deaths that followed. Both of these companies have stressed safety over the years.
The Haunted House Company attempted to make an attraction that was fire resistant, but just as space scientists found out over a decade ago it is extremity hard to make something completely fireproof. This tragedy points out that a sprinkler system and smoke alarms should be made mandatory in all walk-throughs and dark rides.
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