Lagoon, the Roller Coaster, and the Kilee King Investigation, 1989

by JOHANNA M. MELIK

In the late 1800s, Utah’s beloved amusement park, today known as Lagoon, was located in a different area along the shores of the Great Salt Lake, along with other “recreational resorts.” Not only was Lagoon’s location different back in the day, but its name was too. The resort was called “Lake Park,” and was open to the public on July 15, 1886. “It was one of the most attractive watering places in the West.” (127 Years) However, in 1893, the Great Salt Lake began to recede, leaving this once wonderful paradise surrounded by “a sticky, blue mud that was miserable to swimmers and guests.” (127 Years) This nasty inconvenience, among other reasons, basically forced Lake Park to switch locations and relocate to its current address in Farmington in 1896. The new home of this park was situated on the banks of a nine-acre lagoon, two and one-half miles inland from its original location, providing the park with its new name: Lagoon. (127 Years)

Department of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

The thrill ride, Shoot-the-Chutes, was popular in 1896. Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

The same year of its relocation, Lagoon presented its first thrill ride, Shoot-the-Chutes, which is similar to today’s Log Flume ride. Later, in 1921, one of the most well known rides of this amusement park was finally introduced and “the roar of the Roller Coaster began.” (127 Years) “Almost 90 years old,” Arave writes, “the Lagoon Roller Coaster remains one of the most popular attractions at the park and is one of only a few wooden coasters between Denver and the West Coast.”

According to Lagoon’s press kit, a fire in 1953 destroyed the front of this coaster. It was rebuilt the following year, and sections of the Roller Coaster have been rebuilt each year since then. In that same press kit, Lagoon ensured the ride was, and would be, safe for the community. “The tracks are walked and thoroughly checked over each day before being put into use for the public.” (127 Years) As true as this may be, there have still been a few accidents, even fatal incidents, which occurred on this very ride. However, it seems that in all of those situations, Lagoon was not at fault. Arave writes that those deaths were caused by the “patron’s own negligence or recklessness.” In fact, the odds of being killed on one of these rides are about two chances in 43 million. (Arave) Rep. Blaze Wharton, D-Salt Lake, “compliments Lagoon’s safety record and doesn’t think, given information about the recent accident, that inspections could have prevented the deaths.” (Deseret News, June 25)

In the specific case of Kilee King, a 13-year-old girl of Bountiful who died on the infamous wooden Roller Coaster in 1989, investigation proved that no criminal negligence was involved. (Rosebrock, June 14) According to a June 29 story in the Deseret News, the Farmington police detective who investigated the incident found that the death of this teenage girl was a “fluke combination of her physique, actions and the laws of physics.” (Rosebrock, June 29) King was a slim, 5 feet 3 inches tall girl who only weighed 71 pounds. “In effect, it was a quirk of physics, combined with what the girl did and her height and weight,” said Detective Sgt. Jeff Jacobson after investigation of the incident. (Rosebrock, June 29)

Deseret News reporter Joel Campbell wrote on June 11 that Kilee King died at the park after falling from the front seat of the ride’s carts. “Witnesses said that the girl stood up from beneath a locked retraining bar, lost her balance and fell to a grassy area beneath the coaster.” According to that same article, the coaster had just gone over the curve of its second hill when she lost contact with the cart. The girl pushed herself up against the safety bar as the cart was at the peak of the hill, raised her arms above her head and lifted up off her seat as the cart took its ordinary “downward plunge.” The momentum from her forward and upward motion caused her to slip from under the bar, falling 35 feet to the ground. (Deseret News, July 29) The South Davis Fire Department officials said the girl was pronounced dead before any emergency medical personnel had arrived. (Deseret News, June 11)

The victim was the daughter of J. Wayne and Susan King. After the terrible incident, Susan filed a lawsuit against the amusement park, charging it with negligence. (Deseret News, July 29) According to Deseret News reports on July 29, 1989, Mrs. King stated that the design and operation of the park’s roller coaster was dangerous and that the lack of sufficient safety restraints is what had allowed her daughter to be thrown from the ride. Lagoon officials choose to not disclose much information about the lawsuits filed against the park, but according to Detective Jacobson’s findings, this was not the case. (Deseret News, July 29) According to Deseret News reporter Don Rosebrock, King had a season pass to Lagoon and had ridden the roller coaster multiple times prior to the deadly accident.

Department of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

A postcard view of Lagoon. Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Being a part of the LDS church, King’s passing was a topic of discussion during one of her church’s meetings. “We discussed the fact that her spirit had left her body, that she was still living…. We explained she will continue to live and they [young people whom she was friends with] should not be fearful and they would see her again,” stated Bishop Sherman Fuller, in an article written by Deseret News on June 12. “There was an air of peace.” Friends and neighbors remembered King as “vivacious, energetic and a natural leader.” She was thought of as someone whom everybody liked. (Deseret News, June 12) She was the type of person who did not care about what others had, “maybe they weren’t as popular or energetic. She tried to bring those people forward. She tried to involve them,” said Fuller in the article. (Deseret News, June 12) One of her “lifetime” friends, Katie Gardiner, was one of the people whom she “went out of her way to make feel accepted by a group of friends.” (Deseret News, June 12) Another one of King’s friends, Jeremy Christoffersen, said, “Next year in eighth grade I will think about her a lot and that she is gone. We spend a lot of time together. I used to go to Lagoon a lot with her. We went to a restaurant as a presidency. She was always laughing and smiling…. I still don’t understand what happened on the roller coaster.” (Deseret News, June 12)

The park itself remained opened after this accident, but the ride was shut down for inspection. (Rosebrock, June 14) However, “two studies, using research by doctors, scientists, astronauts and engineers, say amusement park rides are very safe.” (Deseret News, Jan. 21) J. Clark Robinson, a worker at Lagoon for 27 years who was president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said that the studies “have brought to light scientific proof that our rides are safe.” (Deseret News, Jan. 21)

People should not worry about accidents when visiting Lagoon, because cases such as Kilee King’s are very uncommon. Over the 127 years that Lagoon has been running and available to the public, there have been 16 deaths overall, including incidents not involving any of the rides themselves (such as heart attacks). Nearly half of those were caused by “the patron’s own negligence or recklessness.” (Arave) So it is, however, important to know how to keep yourself safe when riding these rides, in order to avoid a tragic accident. There are just some things that cannot be controlled by a safety restraint.

Johanna M. Melik is a junior at The University of Utah, majoring in mass communication.

Sources

Joel Campbell, “OFFICIALS PROBING DEATH OF GIRL, 13, WHO FELL FROM ROLLER COASTER,” Deseret News, June 11, 1989.

Joel Campbell, “KILEE WAS HAPPY AND CARING GIRL FRIENDS RECALL,” Deseret News, June 12, 1989.

Don Rosebrock and Joel Campbell, “BOUNTIFUL GIRL’S DEATH NOT THE 1st ON LAGOON’S WOODEN ROLLER COASTER,” Deseret News, June 13, 1989.

Don Rosebrock, “TEEN’S DEATH ON ROLLER COASTER AT LAGOON IS RULED ACCIDENTAL,” Deseret News, June 14, 1989.

Joel Campbell and Ray Eldard, “LEGISLATOR WANTS INSPECTIONS OF CARNIVAL, PARK RIDES,” Deseret News, June 25, 1989.

Don Rosebrock, “ROLLER COASTER DEATH CALLED A FLUKE A QUIRK OF PHYSICS, TEEN’S PHYSIQUE AND HER ACTIONS, DETECTIVE SAYS,” Deseret News, June 29, 1989.

“BOUNTIFUL MOTHER FILES LAWSUIT IN DEATH OF DAUGHTER AT LAGOON,” Deseret News, July 29, 1989.

Lynn Arave, “Lagoon questions data on injuries,” Deseret News, August 15, 2000.

Lee Davidson,“2 studies declare roller coaster safe,” Deseret News, January 21, 2003.

Arave, Lynn. “It’s About Fun: A History of Lagoon Amusement/Theme Park.” The Mystery Of Utah.

127 Years of Family Fun!” Lagoon Corp. Media Resources.

 

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