Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The day the amusement died

The paying crowd came and whooped as death's smoky smell lingered.

KeithForrestRead more

By Keith Forrest

For most people, the commencement of the summer season tickles the senses with the smell of salt water and the taste of cold treats. But each year around this time, I get a queasy feeling instead.

It was the day after my prom in May 1984. My best buddy and our prom dates had planned an after-prom excursion to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, N.J.

That morning my mother told us not to go. She had heard a news report that there had been a fire at the park's Haunted Castle.

I looked her in the eye and said, "OK, we'll find something else to do." I lied and I have regretted it ever since. We went anyway.

It was the only time in my life I have breathed in death. When we arrived at Great Adventure, we could smell the disturbing odor wafting through the park. It had been more than a fire. It had been one of the worst tragedies in the history of amusement parks.

Eight teenagers were killed in the fire. Their bodies were so badly charred that they had to be identified by their personal belongings, such as key chains.

This didn't happen in some obscure section of the park. The Haunted Castle, or what was left of it, was nearly at the front gate.

Instead of carnival sounds and the smell of cotton candy, we were greeted by a crime scene.

I tried to feign excitement for the sake of our dates. But the whole day I felt like I was stomping on someone's grave.

We all were. Great Adventure was open for business as usual as if nothing had happened. It was heartless.

There was no recognition of the victims. There was no apology. Just open the gates to more paying customers.

It's been 24 years since that day, and it still stings. I remember the echoes of laughter as park patrons gleefully rode roller coasters and log flumes. It left a macabre etching on my ear drums.

I wondered if they knew what we were doing - how we were desecrating the memory of eight teens who were probably just like me in most ways.

Great Adventure and its parent company were put on trial for aggravated manslaughter for the deaths. They were ultimately found not guilty, but they certainly appeared to play a role in the tragedy by failing to put in smoke detectors and sprinklers.

According to newspaper reports of the time, employees were threatened with being fired if they talked to reporters about the accident.

There were enough mistakes and apparent cover-ups that it makes the historical record of the fire read like an Oliver Stone movie.

But as an 18-year-old, I didn't care about any of that. All I knew was that eight teens were dead and Great Adventure was open like it were any day in May.

I was nauseated that entire day. I told my friends that a roller-coaster ride we had taken had made me sick.

The reality was I couldn't get the images out of my head of the horrific end for those eight dead teens. I thought about the unbridled panic they must have felt as they realized there was no escape from the flames.

I lost my innocence that day and I lost my trust in summer. Now as a father, I have taken my four kids to amusement parks. But I hold my breath a bit every time.

We have sewn the amusement park experience into what it means to be an American. We teach our children from a young age to long for a trip to the Magic Kingdom.

But every time I go to an amusement park, I get that queasy feeling again.