WILDWOOD - Paramedics huddled, trying to save the girl. Blood turned a nearby pool to a reddish color. There was frenzy, there was shock.
Eric Lam witnessed that frenzy and shock Friday. Lam, an eighth-grader at Ocean City Intermediate School, was attending Morey's Piers Education Extravaganza, a yearly event for area students and educators. He was standing near the Raging Waters ticket area on the Mariner's Landing Pier - directly beneath the Ferris wheel from which Abiah Jones, 11, fell to her death.
Investigators still are trying to figure out why Jones, of Pleasantville, fell.
Lam calls the incident something he'll remember for the rest of his life.
"The scene was very tense, to see if she was alive or not," Lam wrote on Facebook. "Everyone was talking and pointing at the scene."
Shaelyn Linden, 11, a fifth-grade student at Glenwood Avenue Elementary School in Wildwood, was eating lunch at the nearby water park when Jones fell.
"I thought I was imagining it," she wrote on Facebook.
But the accident, which happened at about 12:30 p.m., was far too real, leaving a profound impact on those attending the park.
Amusement ride experts and park officials consider this a freak occurrence - it's the first time a patron has died in an accident on a Morey's ride since the family started running amusements here in 1969. The company averages about three million visitors a year, Marketing Supervisor Lindsey Young said.
Morey's Piers President Will Morey said there are no restraints on the 156-foot tall ride called "The Giant Wheel." The ride, built by Vekoma International, opened in 1985 and is one of the tamer attractions on the pier. Ferris wheels are designed more for the spectacular views than to thrill with motion.
Riders on Ferris wheels are rarely restrained with metal bars or seat belts. Unlike a roller coaster, there are no physical forces that would throw a patron off. The wheel spins slowly in a circle and the gondolas in which the patrons sit adjust so that they are always upright. There are openings in the gondolas, so it is possible for a rider to exit the steel cage if the rider chooses to.
"A ride is designed for the risks foreseen. Every ride is designed to consider those risks and New Jersey has extremely rigid standards," Morey said Saturday.
Morey's officials require Giant Wheel riders to be at least 54 inches tall or be accompanied by an adult.
The Morey's height requirement is as stringent, if not stricter, than the state's. Hollie Gilroy, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Community Affairs, which oversees amusement parks, was unable to provide the state's height requirements for the ride Saturday.
Four patrons are allowed per gondola, but Jones was reportedly by herself. The doors to the gondolas open inward and are latched.
There is a warning sign as patrons wait in line that tells them to keep all body parts inside the gondola at all times, remain seated during the entire ride, and to not sway the cabin. The sign also explains that the wheel will occasionally stop for a short period of time.
DCA officials inspected the ride on March 17. It passed the inspection, Gilroy said.
James Barber serves as communications chair for the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, or NAARSO. The organization's mission is the advancement of amusement ride and device safety.
Barber spent nearly 30 years as a ride inspector in New York. He said New Jersey has one of the better inspection programs in the country - and often when tragedies of this nature occur, ride malfunctions aren't to blame.
"Maybe she panicked when she realized she was that high, or maybe she was standing and the ride came to a stop," Barber said. "It's a pretty unique accident."
Barber said the last time he remembers something of this nature happening was five years ago, in June 2006 - when a 6-year-old California boy fell out of a Ferris wheel and died.
"It's unfortunate that this is part of the deal (with amusement park rides)," he said. "Similarly with cars, you don't want to see anyone get killed in a car accident, but you have that happen sometimes. It's sad to hear about this."
An autopsy could show if there was a medical condition that caused Jones to fall from the ride, but authorities were not clear Saturday if one was being performed.
Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor referred inquiries about an autopsy to the Southern Regional Medical Examiner's Office in Woodbine, and officials there referred inquiries to a representative at the N.J. Attorney General's Office, whose phone rang unanswered Saturday.
The Wildwood Police Department and the county Prosecutor's Office are continuing to investigate the death and both are seeking witnesses who could provide information. Wildwood Police can be reached at 609-522-0222 and the Prosecutor's Office at 609-465-1135.
Morey said the park is cooperating with investigators. So far there has been no indication that "operational or mechanical failure" played a role. He said all rides are inspected in-house on a daily basis.
"This is a tragic event. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family," Morey said.
Workers at the park on Saturday said they were told not to talk to the media. Morey said the entire staff "is deeply affected by this."
All three of Morey's Piers closed early Friday, at 5 p.m. instead of 11 p.m., out of respect for the victim's family, but they were back open and bustling with business on Saturday. Many of the patrons at Mariner's Landing, where the accident occurred, were aware of the girl's death. The Giant Wheel remained closed with a sign that read: "This ride is closed today. We apologize for the inconvenience."
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