An icon of the Wildwood boardwalk that's churned out smiles for more than 25 years, brought tears and shock to onlookers' faces in just a few short seconds yesterday afternoon.
Police say an 11-year-old girl on a class trip fell to her death from the Giant Wheel, a 156-foot Ferris wheel covered in neon that lights up the sky from its oceanfront perch at the back of Mariner's Landing Pier. Abiah Jones, a fifth-grade student at PleasanTech Academy in Pleasantville, fell nearly 100 feet from one of wheel's gondolas, in front of students and visitors.
"I will never get that image out of my head," said Linda Santiago, of Franklinville, Gloucester County. "She had a purple shirt on. She had braids in her hair. It was ghastly."
Wildwood Police Capt. Robert Regalbuto said Jones was visiting the pier with several classmates and chaperones yesterday when she boarded the Giant Wheel, alone. About 12:30, police received a call that she had fallen, landing near the Ferris wheel's passenger loading area.
While there is no harness or seat belt device in the gondolas, there are locking gates and railings that would prevent someone from falling if he or she were sitting down. People claiming to be witnesses wrote on Facebook that Jones was looking over the side or leaning out of the gondola from the top, while it was moving, but police still have not determined exactly how she fell.
"We believe it was an accident," Regalbuto said.
A spokesman for Morey's Piers, which operates the Giant Wheel along with rides on other piers, said Jones' death did not appear to be mechanical or operational. Morey's Piers ceased operations for the remainder of the day out of "respect for the family."
"On behalf of the Morey Family and staff, I offer our sincerest thoughts and prayers to the family" the company's president, Will Morey, said in a statement.
The incident marked the first time a patron died at Morey's Piers since the company began operating in the Wildwoods in 1969. The Ferris wheel was built in 1985 and most recently passed an inspection on March 17.
Morey's Piers was hosting "Education Extravaganza" yesterday and hundreds of students from area schools were in attendance. One student at the pier said bloodstained the water of a paddleboat complex below the Ferris wheel.
Jones' family declined to comment when reached by the Daily News yesterday. PleasanTech Academy, in a statement, said Jones was a "STAR" student at the school.
"Words are totally inadequate to express our feelings, but please know that our thoughts and prayers are with the family," the school said.
Atlantic City Councilman Mo Delgado, who said he is a longtime friend of Jones's family, said Jones used to call him "Uncle Mo" when she lived in Atlantic City. "She was very sweet and very humble. She was a real innocent girl," he said.
Santiago, who watched as paramedics worked on Jones before she was evacuated by helicopter, said it was a beautiful, breezy day on the pier before the tragedy.
"You just never know," she said. "You send your kid out on a nice trip and that's it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.