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Southern Cross Incident 1978

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Southern Cross Incident 1978

Postby MGA1 » Sat May 17, 2008 12:45 am

The Southern Cross sky ride ran East-West across the park. It was taller than the North-South route of the Delta Flyer/Eagles Flight sky ride. The summer winds typically blew mostly in a southernly direction. On windy days, this caused operating problems for both sky rides...Southern Cross was more affected by these cross winds. The winds would cause the gondolas to swing. When the swinging gondolas passed next to any of the sky ride towers, it caused a potential safety problem keeping the gondolas securely attached to the cable as they pass through the transfer wheels on each tower.

If the wind speed picked up quickly, the ride would detect the winds and shut itself off automatically...leaving the guests hanging there in the gondolas. Then, the operators would restart the ride in manual mode which had a very slow (barely moving) cable speed to slowly bring the each gondola into the nearest station where the guests were unloaded and the gondolas were taken off the cable and stored in the garage. While this was the standard procedure, it always was a bigger hassle for Southern Cross because 1/2 the guests ended up getting unloaded at the undeveloped Southwest Territory station. The operator at that station had to unload guests from each gondola, store the gondolas in the garage at that end, and then walk all the guests from that station (in the middle of a weed/mud field) back into the guest areas of the park.

I vividly recall one major incident at Southern Cross in May of 1978 that didn't go according to Standard Operating Procedures...and ended up involving an all-day rescue with multiple fire departments and ended up in the paper and on the news in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Sometime in the late morning, the winds picked up and caused the gondolas to start swinging. The ride shut itself down like it was designed to do. In a freak incident, one of the gondolas was passing through the transfer wheels on a tower in the middle of the park when the winds blew and caused the gondola's clamp to become partially disengaged from the cable when the ride shut down. While the guests on the ride never knew the real danger they were facing, this particular gondola was very much at risk of falling off the cable and crashing below.

The ride could NOT be restarted in manual mode (slow) because this one gondola (with guests inside) would definitely had fallen off as soon as it passed another of the transfer wheels on the tower. To make things worse, there was no way to speak with most of the guests stuck in the gondolas. They tried to use bullhorns but only a few of the guests in the gondolas closest to each station could hear them....the rest were too high up and the background noise from the rides/music in the park made the bullhorns impossible to hear.

Fire Departments from all the surrounding cities responded to the park with their ladder trucks. The initial plan was to rescue the guests from the one gondola that was at risk of falling off and then restart the ride in manual mode. However, that plan was quickly discarded because it was certain that one gondola would fall off and all the other guests on the Southern Cross as well others in the park would see it fall and they'd have a mass panic to deal with.

So the fire department ladder trucks had to go to each gondola and evacuate the guests one at a time down the ladders. I was working at the chutes and second lift at Loggers Run most of that day so I got to see a lot of the rescues. It was the scariest thing ever...the ladder trucks extending their ladders up into pure air (on a windy day) and precariously resting against each non-stationary gondola. Each guest had to be escorted down the ladder by a fireman. So for each gondola, the firemen had to go up and down the ladder 4 (or sometime 5 times if there was a baby as a 5th passenger). I can't remember how many gondolas there were total....somehow I seem to think there were 36 or 38 gondolas on that ride. There were infant babies that were carried down the ladders by the firemen and several elderly seniors that also had to climb down the ladders. The ladder trucks had to reposition themselves for each gondola. I remember they used chain saws to cut through a couple fences hiding the service road so the ladder trucks could get into a certain location and some berm areas in the park were partially bulldozed so the ladder trucks could get under certain gondolas.

This initial incident occurred in the afternoon and the last guests weren't unloaded until after 8 pm! There was no way to get food or water to the stranded guests....and no restrooms up there. There were a bunch of news choppers flying over the part for most of the afternoon until it got dark and a bunch of reporters outside of the park.

As guests were brought down the ladders, they were met by Marriott managers who quickly whisked the guests away to debrief them and tell them exactly what happened.

I'm sure I could find out more about the incident by searching old Chicago Tribune articles. From what I remember hearing, there amazingly were no deaths or serious injuries, just some scrapes from climbing down the ladders. I also heard (but never verified) that as "compensation" for the incident, Marriott immediately fed all the rescued guests at Maggie Brown's and also provided every rescued guest with a lifetime admission pass to Great America.

If that was true, I wonder if those lifetime admission passes remained valid after the park was sold to Six Flags?

Does anyone remember more about this incident?
Last edited by MGA1 on Mon Jun 30, 2008 7:17 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby PGA ROCKS » Wed May 21, 2008 10:52 pm

This sounds very frightening. Perhaps this was one of the reasons Southern Cross and Delta Flyer were removed from the park. I've never heard of any problems of this happening at the SC park, where Delta Flyer is still operating.
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Postby GreatAmerica4ever » Thu May 22, 2008 5:26 am

I remember hearing about this, which is probably why Southern Cross was removed shortly after the incident. I think a similar incident happened at Delta Flyer in the early '80's.

The last time I rode Delta Flyer was in 1983 with my 8th Grade graduation class. I was a little nervous if we stopped for a second at any time in the air!
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Postby BillK » Fri Jun 13, 2008 11:51 pm

I seem to remember the SC was very rarely open after the incident.

Whether that was just luck of the draw, the shutdown wind speeds were lowered, or what the actual reason was, I don't remember being able to ride the SC after that.
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Postby Glorfindel7 » Sat Jun 14, 2008 8:59 am

Yeah, that might have been the real reason I never rode the SC (after this incident which happened in only the second year of its operation)
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Postby RLAiello » Sun Jun 29, 2008 1:47 am

Back to the ol' Great America Box for this one. It's a photocopy of an article in the Chicago Sun-Times after the incident happened. It was sent to me by a gentlemen back in the early 90s or so. I don't have anything other than this, but it was definitely in the news.

Sorry for the crummy quality - I did the best I could with the scan! :)

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Postby MGA1 » Mon Jun 30, 2008 2:56 pm

Cool! Thanks Rick for posting the newspaper clip. I guess it was actually in May 1978 prior to Memorial Day so that means the park was open 10am-8pm on weekends...I'll edit my previous post. I remember the park was closing & it was dark outside by the time the last guests were rescued.

Any chance you have a newsclip about a chlorine gas leak in the park in '78 that caused the park to be evacuated and closed early? It occurred on my day off so I wasn't there....but I think it was the first (and only?) time the park had to be evacuated and closed early. I returned to work two days later & everything was back to normal.
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