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Kennywood Park witnesses describe chaos at Whip ride

Saturday, June 01, 2002

By Bill Schackner and Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

A ride known as one of the mildest in Kennywood Park became the scene of death and horror last night.

The wooden pavilion that shelters the Whip ride collapsed about 7 p.m. as storms tore through the region.

Kelsey Bartoletti, 12, and Sally Dugas, 12, both of Burgettstown, tell reporters what they saw when the roof covering the Whip ride at Kennywood Park collapsed last night. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Up to 100 people were trapped beneath its timbers, including a 30-year-old Monroeville woman, Stephanie Wilkerson, who died at the scene.

At least 54 other people were injured.

West Mifflin officials said the woman was crushed between the pavilion and a wrought-iron fence.

Children from several school districts, including Penn-Trafford and Burgettstown, were among the thousands of guests at the park yesterday.

The victims were taken to six hospitals, where they were being treated for injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken limbs.

UPMC Presbyterian and Children's Hospital each got 11 people; UPMC Braddock got six; Forbes Regional Medical Center got 12; Jefferson Regional Medical Center got seven; UPMC McKeesport got four; Mercy Hospital got two; and Allegheny General Hospital treated one.

Children's spokeswoman Melanie Finnigan said some of the victims brought there were released after treatment, but others underwent surgery.

The children suffered head, neck and facial injuries.

Mercy spokeswoman Linda Ross said a 37-year-old father from Harrison City was treated for a cut to his head and a sprained ankle and released, but his wife was still being evaluated.

Their 4-year-old daughter was treated for a skull fracture, and their 1 1/2-year-old son was being evaluated at another hospital, Ross said.

Mercy also admitted three car-crash victims who were injured in weather-related accidents, Ross said.

Information on victims was unavailable from the other hospitals.

Kennywood officials said they knew of no other fatalities, but hours after the pavilion collapsed, rescue workers were still searching through it to make sure no one else was trapped.

Police dogs also were brought to the park, but as of early this morning, they had found no other trapped people.

Kennywood employees who would not give their names said the Whip is known as a "Code Red" area, where people can be directed for shelter in case of a storm.

But park spokeswoman Mary Lou Rosemeyer would not confirm last night that people were herded into the sheltered ride as the storms approached.

The Whip is the oldest flat ride in the park, opening in 1918. It consists of 16 cars that travel along an oblong track, "whipping" riders as they round bends.

The ride was moved to the Lost Kennywood section of the park in 1995, the year a sheltering pavilion was built around it.

West Mifflin police Chief Frank Diener said the pavilion was literally lifted off its foundation.

The wind picked up the building, which is about 40 feet wide and 100 feet long, and moved it 20 feet before it crashed down onto the ride itself.

The same rails and wrought iron fences that contributed to Wilkerson's death also saved many of the other people who crowded into the ride, Diener said.

They "kept people from being crushed," he said.

Wilkerson was in line with a cousin when a park official announced the Whip was closing because of the coming storm.

Wilkerson was walking away from the ride and toward a locker to retrieve her belongings when she was crushed.

Rosemeyer said other rides in the park also may have been damaged. Workers were expected to be out all night checking them, and park officials said they would wait until this morning to decide whether to open for business.

Steve Schwab, a West Mifflin firefighter, made his way to the Whip shortly after the pavilion collapsed.

He described the scene as one of absolute pandemonium.

"It looked like it blew over," he said of the pavilion. "The pillars all collapsed.

"When I got here, there were still three or four people trapped underneath. You could hear people screaming."

The Dupal family of Plum, at the park with other Penn-Trafford school district residents, said the fury of the storm was unbelievable.

"We were in a pavilion, and you could see the sky getting dark," said Jennifer Dupal, who was at the park with her husband, John, and their 5-year-old son, Joshua.

"The rain came slowly at first, then it started pouring, and then it was going sideways. Trees outside the pavilion near the Jack Rabbit [roller coaster] began falling."

Added her husband, who was at the Penny Arcade with Joshua, "At one point the sky almost looked green, and branches and trees started flying around outside."

Jennifer Dupal also said she saw Kennywood employees kicking in the sides of another attraction, the Old Mill haunted house, so people could get out.

Kaci Harshey, 16, a sophomore from Burgettstown Junior-Senior High School in Washington County, said she and a friend were buying ice cream at a refreshment stand near the Whip when the storm blew up.

As lightning flashed and rain began to sprinkle, Kennywood workers started shutting down the rides.

"It looked like it was going to pass over and get nice again," she said. "But then it got real hot and then big hail balls started falling. There was lots of wind and rain everywhere. "

Tree limbs began flying and what appeared to be a whole tree crashed onto the ice cream stand, but the worker inside was able to get out, Harshey said.

People around them were screaming and then the roof of the Whip "just fell in," she said.

"It happened so fast that nobody knew what to do. My friend and I ran into the back of Noah's Ark. The Kennywood girls outside were pushing us in there, but the [workers] inside there were pushing us back out," she said.

"The people inside were saying we couldn't go in there because of some kind of problems in there. It was awful."

When the wind and rain abated, Harshey and her friend stepped back outside to find chaos.

People were crying, and several were clutching their ears or wiping away blood that trickled from their ears, she said.

People were screaming from under the Whip, but Harshey said she was too dazed to know how to help them.

"Everyone was in shock at first," she said. "I don't know how [the trapped people] got out of there."

Helen Kistler, a lawyer from Penn Township, had spent the day at the park with her husband, Dennis, and her children, 14-year-old Emily, 12-year-old Leah and 9-year-old Nathan, all students in Penn-Trafford schools.

Kistler was in a pavilion near the park entrance when the rain began.

"We started hearing thunder and then the lightning was just really horrific. The winds were so strong, and the kids all became very upset and started to cry. That was one of the scariest things I've ever lived through."

Later, after the worst had passed, Kistler said her friend was able to joke about it and remarked, "It was almost like you expected Auntie Em to go past."

Staff writers Cindi Lash, Marylynne Pitz and Joe Smydo contributed to this report.

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