Trapped in Midair: Special Operations

Trapped in Midair

On August 10, 2014, at approximately 1420 hours, units from the Prince George's County Fire/Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Department were dispatched to Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, for the report of a roller coaster stopped midair with people on board. Units arrived at the park and were directed to the "Joker's Jinx" roller coaster, which had stopped about 85 feet up and going into a turn. There were 24 people trapped on the ride. The area where the cars were located contained no catwalks or other mechanisms that would have allowed rescuers to walk stranded occupants down to the ground.

Initial Actions

Six Flags personnel met first-arriving units at the main entrance and directed them to the roller coaster. The first-arriving units established the "Six Flags Command" and worked with park personnel to determine accessibility, size up the situation, and gather information about the ride. Some units were staged to ensure that responding technical-rescue units and aerial apparatus could gain access to the site.

On arrival, Northern Division Volunteer Chief Daniel McCoy assumed command. He established a recon group and an EMS sector to begin forming branches of the incident command system (ICS). "Battalion chief 2 and I arrived simultaneously," states McCoy. "He established and I assumed within about a minute. Knowing I would need additional command officers in supervisory roles, I designated battalion chief 2 as the recon group supervisor. Often, the initial units dispatched on a response are sufficient to handle the reported emergency. Technical rescues, however, are labor-, equipment-, and manpower-intensive and typically require added resources. Additionally, the incident commander needs trained and experienced personnel on the scene who can be relied on for efficient and safe operations. Without adequately trained and experienced personnel, a simple rescue can become complicated and dangerous for everyone involved."

"While assessing and processing the initial information," McCoy continues, "I considered and hoped park personnel would be able to mitigate this incident without fire department involvement. Roller coasters are designed to roll, and riders expect them to start and stop at certain points. I expected a ride engineer/operator would have been able to safely guide the stalled cars to either their designated end point or a safe area for passengers to exit. At my arrival that would have been my 'best case scenario.' Once it was confirmed this was an actual high-angle technical rescue, my thoughts and actions turned toward access; contact with park personnel; ascertaining the number of patients; staging location; and, most important, whether we had the resources available to handle a high-angle rescue."

The recon group met with park maintenance and supervisory personnel to discuss options for removing the stranded occupants; concerns with the roller coaster; and what resources the facility had to offer. Park personnel informed responders that the ride was locked out and tagged out; however, the cars were not secured and could move if weight was shifted. After the initial meeting, it was determined that moving the cars along the coaster was not an option. This would take several hours, and there was no certainty of controlling the cars. The EMS branch began determining what resources would be necessary in the event this became a mass casualty incident. The necessary resources were requested, and areas for the various units were established.

On completion of initial meetings and assessments, command established a rescue group, access group, and safety group. The rescue group supervisors—a chief and a lieutenant (rescue group bravo)—worked with the technical rescue teams (15 rope rescue technicians responding) to establish a set of rescue options for removing the stranded occupants. The access group, supervised by a lieutenant, was to devise a plan for accessing the cars from the back side of the coaster. The safety group, supervised by a safety officer, was tasked with ensuring overall scene safety.

Initial Priorities

"Once first-arriving units confirmed a roller coaster had stopped midtrack approximately 85 feet in the air," McCoy states, "it was determined this was going to be a high-angle rescue operation."

Initial priorities as the incident commander included the following:

  •  Accessing and determining the location and number of victims, which was complicated because of the size of the park and number of patrons.
  •  Securing the scene and limiting access to the area; establishing a safety officer, and, if necessary, a rescue safety officer.
  •  Contacting park personnel to gather information about the ride, finding out why it was not operating properly, and deciding how to resolve this incident quickly and safely.
  •  Establishing a recon group (which became the access group once recon was no longer needed) and a staging area for incoming units.
  •  Establishing a command post in an area outside the hot zone, connecting with Six Flags' ranking representative, and setting up a sole command post contact with that person.
  •  Forming a rescue plan and establishing a rescue group.
  •  Forming and beginning to implement multiple backup rescue plans (plans B, C, and D, if necessary) and the resources/equipment needed for implementation.
  •  Establishing an EMS branch and ensuring adequate resources to handle the total number of occupants (24) on the ride.

"After making contact with the roller coaster occupants and determining none were experiencing any immediate life-threatening emergencies, the recon group was reassigned as the access group," says McCoy. "This group was tasked with clearing the area and establishing access for the incoming units, specifically tower ladders, commercial cranes, and any other commercial or fire department equipment that may be needed at the rescue sight. The rescue group assumed the responsibilities of the recon group and worked toward developing and implementing the rescue incident action plan," he adds.

Changing Priorities

As the incident progressed, needs, priorities, and operations evolved. The rescue group was able to make contact with the 24 roller coaster riders and provided them with umbrellas and bottled water, as it was a warm and sunny day with very little cloud coverage. In addition, if medical attention was needed, it could have been provided on the ride.

The rescue group would need to remove occupants from the secured cars stuck midtrack on the roller coaster. In the event plan A did not work, command requested resources and personnel to execute a plan B; C; and, if necessary, D. Plan A comprised tower ladders, plan B a commercial crane, and plan C a rope rescue involving a high point and rope system to lower victims one-by-one.

This was an extended incident, during which rehab units were requested. Rehab was established within the EMS branch. The command bus (mobile command unit) was dispatched to the scene. On arrival it became the command post where additional resources and information were made available.

"We were fortunate plan A worked and that the mechanical issues plaguing the tower ladders were overcome. The occupants were rescued via tower ladder and evaluated by EMS units," says McCoy. "All in all, 24 occupants were removed from the stalled roller coaster and evaluated by EMS."

Group Actions

Rescue Group: The initial priorities follow:

  •  Secure the cars from further movement.
  •  Make contact with the victims to assess any immediate medical/physiological concerns.
  •  Provide bottled water and umbrellas for shade to stranded riders.
  •  Assess the scene from the topside to develop a series of rescue options.

First and foremost, the rescue group was concerned with ensuring the cars were secured from moving in either direction. This was completed along with the initial assessment and plan development.

Access Group: The initial priority was to determine a location that would give the closest and safest access to the stranded roller coaster. The group then had to determine the resources necessary for gaining access to this area, as the roller coaster was surrounded by chain link fencing and trees.

Safety Group: The initial priority was to determine the overall safety hazards to both the stranded riders and the responders. This group had to determine the number of safety officers needed to monitor the entire scene and operations.

EMS Branch: The initial priority was to determine what resources would be necessary in the event each stranded occupant required treatment. The EMS branch officer also had to work with the access and rescue groups to determine a staging location for the units where patients would be assessed and treated as they there were brought down from the ride.


Once priorities were established and crews began identifying their needs, the group leaders and command officers met to develop a single plan and ensure that all personnel were on the same page. At any technical rescue, it is imperative that personnel operate within their area of responsibility and in accordance with the established plan. At the conclusion of the meeting, group leaders proceeded to implement the plan. Each group identified their needs, and command worked toward getting the requested resources, including the following:

  •  Crews with saws to remove fencing and trees.
  •  Two tower ladders with a minimum reach capability of 100 feet.
  •  Two safety officers on the ground and one on the ride.
  •  Alternate radio talk group for the rescue group (aside from the command talk group).
  •  One rescue group supervisor on the ride (rescue group) and one on the ground (rescue group bravo). This allowed for clear communications between the ride and the ground.

The Basic Plan

The basic plan was to gain access to the stranded riders using tower ladders at the rear of the roller coaster. The stranded riders would then be safely moved from the ride into the tower buckets and lowered to the ground.

Rescue Group Details: The plan was discussed and preparations were made for implementation. Rescue group personnel—those who had accessed the roller coaster, secured the cars, and assessed the riders—remained in place to maintain contact with the riders and monitor their status. Attached to the ride via harness and slings, they were able to move along the cars and talk to the stranded occupants. These personnel would become rescue group team 3. The rescue group assembled two more teams, team 1 and 2, that would use the tower ladders to access stranded riders, harness them in, and transfer them to the buckets of the tower ladders.

On researching the cars of the roller coaster, rescuers determined that all four lap bars released when the manual release was applied. Therefore, each of the four people in every car had to be harnessed prior to releasing the lap bar. The rescuers from team 1 and 2 would remain on the ride and work on harnessing the stranded riders. The other rescuers would stay with the riders in the tower bucket until they reached the ground. The rescue group bravo supervisor handled the teams' logistical needs as they arose.

Access Group Details: The access group used the special service crews to cut down metal fence posts and split rail fencing and trees to provide access for the two tower ladders. They had to ensure that all obstacles were cut flush with the ground so they would not puncture the tires of the apparatus. They determined that one ladder would have to back in and the other would pull in. The ladder operators would have to raise the aerial through the roller coaster to gain access to the stranded riders. Proper positioning was paramount to gaining access to the riders.

Safety Group Details: The safety group established a safety zone under the entire roller coaster so that any items that could potentially fall would not hit responders or civilian personnel. They established an overall scene safety officer along with technical-rescue safety officers on the ground and on the ride.

EMS Branch Details: The EMS branch officer requested the mass casualty bus, which was staged in an accessible area. One transport unit positioned at the rear of the ride was used to transport riders to the triage area once they were removed from the ride. The triage area was established in an area away from the ride, where a quality assessment could be completed and riders could be cooled down and hydrated as necessary.


Prior to commencing final operations, a second meeting with the officers of the technical rescue companies was conducted to ensure that all personnel understood the plan and its details. The rescuers were again briefed on the cars and afforded the opportunity to view the incident from the ground. Both tower ladders were in place and ready. The EMS branch provided the EMS plan, and personnel were in place and ready to receive riders as they were brought down. It was decided that lowering the victims in the basket, rather than having them climb down the ladder, was the safest method to get them on the ground. The riders could potentially be weak and dehydrated or possibly "lock up" on the ladder, which extended 85 feet in the air.

Rescue group teams provided fall protection for the riders, as they were moved from cars to tower baskets and brought to the ground in groups of three and four. The teams worked on occupants from one car at a time. On reaching the ground, they were transferred to awaiting emergency medical providers for a medical assessment. Command was updated as each group was brought down to ensure accurate tracking of the victims.

Several command officers were in the command post to assist with documentation, liaison with the park staff, and monitor the radio.

Command was able to observe the rescue operations from the command bus provided by the Office of Homeland Security. This bus has an elevated camera that was able to zoom in on the stranded riders and observe the rescue operations. The director of Homeland Security was on scene to provide any resources that were needed from his office.

Throughout the incident, the fire department chief and the executive officer handled media inquiries from the scene. A news helicopter hovered overhead, and the incident generated a high volume of media inquiries.

All crews and agencies worked diligently together to bring all riders safely to the ground and treat as necessary.

Operational Issues

Multiple challenges needed to be identified and overcome on scene.

  •  Because of the seat belts on the ride, there were issues with getting harnesses over the thighs of the stranded riders. This was overcome by making rescue seats out of webbing to ensure the riders were secured at all times.
  •  Both tower ladders experienced mechanical issues during the rescue operation. These issues were overcome and solved while the ladders were in place, enabling the operation to continue.
  •  At one point, not all crew members operating on the ride had a portable radio. This was solved by getting a portable to all rescue team members who were on the ride.

Lessons Learned

When asked if he felt he learned anything from this incident as the incident commander, McCoy stated:

"As with all incidents of this scale, I learned a lot. Since the adoption of NIMS (National Incident Management System), I have emphasized the importance of following the incident command system of organization. I have always felt it was important to sector out incidents early, when applicable. This incident and maintaining command for the duration allowed me to work through each of the incident command system positions and evaluate which ones should not be handled by a single person."

"On this incident, command handled the operations, planning, and logistics sections. In addition, the county Homeland Security officer was on the scene and operating at the command post. This allowed me/him to handle the finance/administrative section. If confronted with the same incident today, I would establish logistics and finance/administrative sections separate from operations. I would also maintain command and operate as operations and planning.

"With that said, technical rescue operations are both resource- and manpower-intensive and rely on a small pool of available trained personnel. The pool becomes even smaller based on the type of technical rescue specialty needed (i.e., trench, collapse, confined space, water, hazmat, or high-angle)."

After having some time to review the incident, McCoy had some additional lessons to share with other incident commanders:

"I think the most important thing to pass on to other command officers is 'be in charge and not just command.' Also, the importance of having multiple plans in motion at the same time could prove invaluable, should plans A and B fail.

"As time passed, additional command officers arrived on scene and had input. Some got there as late as an hour after and became involved with operations. For them, the incident began when they reached the scene. As command, you must ensure this does not occur and that you maintain overall control of the incident you are supervising. Additional information and a fresh set of eyes are often necessary and should not be undervalued, as they provide more guidance to incident commanders and help identify potential problem areas. That said, on an extended incident where time is needed to plan, gather resources, coordinate, and implement a rescue action plan, orders should be clear and come directly from command. That is the person responsible for directing the respective branch/group/division supervisors.

"At my arrival, I located Six Flags' ranking supervisor and asked him to remain at the command post for the duration of the incident. While he was my sole contact, an additional park staff member was assigned to assist the recon group supervisor. Overall, park personnel worked well with command.

"When available, using multiple channels assists with maintaining the span of control of several units. On this incident, command/operations worked off the main fireground channel. The announcement channel that broadcasts on all talk group frequencies was also used, when necessary. The EMS branch and the rescue group had their own channels, which were monitored at the command post.

"Finally, have a backup plan and a backup to the backup plan. In some instances, it may even be necessary to have a 'backup-to-the-backup-to-the-backup' plan."

Sidebar - Command requested multiple rescue plans in the event that one did not work out.

Plan A involved removing the occupants via the two tower ladders. It was initially thought that 100-foot ladders might be needed to reach and remove the occupants safely. Although the available units on scene were used, command requested and staged backup tower ladders with additional reach capabilities.

Plan B comprised the use of a crane with a man basket. This option required a crane request from the Emergency Management Agency. The estimated time from request to setup and occupant removal was around four hours. The crane arrived and began setting up, and about 30 minutes away from its being in operation, the last roller coaster occupant was brought down via tower ladder.

Plan C contained a rope system that used a high point (crane) to raise and lower occupants one-by-one to the ground; this would have been time- and staffing-intensive. Planning and preparation for this plan were handled by having additional rope rescue personnel on standby, as well as additional equipment.

Clarion UX