Theme park stays shut after tragedy (+photos)

By Martin Johnston

Rainbow's End in South Auckland is expected to remain closed today after the death of a 21-year-old worker at the theme park.

Michael Ross Stuart of Papakura died yesterday after he became trapped in one of the park's rides shortly before the usual opening time of 10am.

The park did not open and posted notices at its front gates saying this was because of "unforeseen circumstances".

The police and the Occupational Safety and Health Service have begun investigations.

Mr Stuart, who had worked since 2005 at the Manukau City attraction, which refers to itself as "New Zealand's premier theme park", was trapped in a children's ferris wheel.

Standing about 10m tall, the machine carries people in six gondola compartments.

One of the compartments appeared to have been rotated upside-down and covered yesterday while firefighters - who had to cut through parts of the machinery to free Mr Stuart's body - worked on the gondola ride.

Senior Sergeant Spencer Matthews of Counties Manukau said a post-mortem examination of Mr Stuart's body would be carried out this morning.

He said some members of Mr Stuart's family arrived at the theme park after the accident.

"The family have attended the scene and had the chance to say goodbye to Michael. They were understandably very upset but were being comforted by Victim Support and Rainbow's End staff."

A family spokesperson said last night that they were "working through things" but wouldn't speak publicly about the death.

Details of how the accident occurred were not known yesterday, but the police said it appeared Mr Stuart had become trapped between one of the gondola compartments and the frame of the ride while he was cleaning it. The compartments hang on their own shaft as the ride's main wheel turns. The machine was not running at the time.

Mr Matthews expected Mr Stuart would have died instantly, but said it would be for the coroner to determine the nature and cause of death. There were no suspicious circumstances.

Rainbow's End general manager Chris Deere declined to answer questions on the accident but issued a statement saying it was a tragic death and the management was working to provide comfort and support for the park's staff and Mr Stuart's family.

"The staff member [Mr Stuart] will be missed by all for his contribution to the success of Rainbow's End and the friendships he formed.

"The ride involved was a gondola ride. This ride has only recently been subject to independent inspection by civil engineers in late January 2008. The standard internal daily maintenance checks and inspections were completed and the ride had been released for normal operation by the park maintenance engineers."

An OSH manager, Craig White, said a full scene examination would be undertaken today.

Mr Stuart's death is not the first at Rainbow's End, which opened in 1982. In 1990, 19-year-old Thomas Wayne Hemi of Papakura died after plunging 20m to the ground in a bungy jump gone wrong.

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