By the summer of 1968, I had already ridden four wooden roller coasters that were considered major thrill rides in New England. That would be the Crescent Park Zephyr, the Revere Beach Cyclone, Paragon Park’s Giant Coaster, and of course, the Lincoln Park Comet. I rode them with no fear of structural accident occurring, putting my faith in the adults who built them and operated them.
So you can imagine my dismay and shock on July 24, 1968 when I heard an early morning radio newscast reporting a train derailment the previous night on the Lincoln Park Comet, injuring many riders. How could this happen? How could have Mr. Leis’ coaster malfunctioned?
According to a (New Bedford) Standard-Times article, the derailment occurred shortly after 10 p.m. when the last car on the four-car roller coaster train derailed and flipped to one side, causing another car to land on top of it, hurling passengers to the ground. The accident left nine passengers injured, two seriously, according to that article on July 24, 1968. The article reported that a fleet of police cars, ambulances and fire trucks from Dartmouth, Westport, New Bedford, Fairhaven and State Police raced down Route 6 to the park, along with Civil Defense units.
In his SouthCoast Today article of August 23, 2013, “Calamity on the Comet”, — a retrospective on the tragedy — reporter Marc Folco wrote:
“In the night, rescuers navigated through the jungle of timbers below the track to where the injured lay on the ground. They had only flashlights for lighting. There was a locked gate nearby through which to carry the injured to ambulances but nobody had a key. Some of the passengers, still in coaster cars and on the tracks, had to be carried on stretchers along the track in the dark, on planks about 15 inches wide, using only those flashlights to light their way high above the ground.”
Folco went on to report that among those seriously injured were Russell Souza, then 27, of Russells Mills Rd., South Dartmouth and his friend, David Bennett, then 33, of Marion Ave., Westport. They were riding the coaster with their dates. Arthur Greene was in the car ahead of them with his date.
“It had been a beautiful summer evening,” recalled Souza, now 72 and of the same address. “It was dark, the sun had set. We were three friends with three ladies having a nice time at Lincoln Park. We were riding the roller coaster and almost near the end of the ride when the last car came off the track and couldn’t get up the next hill, then it started rolling backwards. We were in that last car — and with the car being off the track it flipped over, then the car in front of it ended up on top of our car.”
Souza was hurt badly as his leg was caught between the car and the track and he was out of work for a year after the accident. “But David Bennett was hurt the worst,” he said. “He’s gone now (died in 2001), but his legs were hurt real bad. He had fallen between the car and track and got pinned. He was in the hospital for months and out of work for years.
In the article, police were quoted as saying that it was fortunate the accident occurred where it did as the roller coaster was on its last lap home to the starting gate where the tracks were only about 10 feet off the ground. “If it had happened on one of the high spots, it would have been too bad,” one official said.
Folco continued: Dartmouth police launched an investigation as to what caused the accident and it was originally speculated that the recent spell of dry weather and damp nights may have caused expansion or contraction along the roller coaster rails — or riders may have been rocking the cars, causing the last one to derail. In the story, Green didn’t believe the theory of anyone rocking cars saying, “You have enough to do just to hold on.”
About two weeks following the accident, I heard a radio news report about the alleged train-rocking – that occupants rocking the cars caused connecting plates to break. I nearly ripped the volume knob off my grandfather’s new Ford in an attempt to get the details. “Stupid kids!” my grandfather snarled, his grip tightening on the steering wheel as we continued down Brightridge Avenue in East Providence. “We’d never do that on a roller coaster when we were kids! You and your brothers are so lucky nobody was rocking the train when you four were riding it!”
My grandfather’s declaration sent a chill down my spine. He was right. My brothers and I did in fact ride it in early June.
About five years ago I emailed a source who was very familiar with roller coasters and this was his response to my question regarding the Comet derailing.
“It seems unlikely to me that rocking the car (considering the trauma it receives just
coursing the ride) could cause detachment unless there was a pre-existing
mechanical weakness at the connector. Considering the mass and weight of a coaster carriage, it’s tough to imagine four people having the ability to destabilize it.”
The passenger rocking theory that still lingers today, even it was concluded long ago that the width of the track had expanded at one point which caused the car to jump center. Folco’s 2011 article reported that the park settled with at least two of the injured.
We had our annual altar boys outing in late August 1968. Of course the Comet was closed, and it felt like the heart and soul had been ripped out of Lincoln Park. Not a fun day. Looking at the hill where the train derailed, there was no evidence of an accident. The shattered train had been removed and there was no evidence of track damage. On the rented school bus ride over from East Providence, some of our adult chaperones were speculating that park would remove the coaster in light of the accident. This really bothered me, and I made it my mission to seek the truth from the Lincoln Park staff. Between taking in the rides that were open, I asked any park employee I saw if he or she knew of the coaster’s future. Most of them shooed me away like a fly, but fortunately, one old-timer gave me the good news, “Of course we’ll reopen it next year!” he answered. “That coaster is our bread and butter. We’re trying to get new trains now. The two we got are junk now!”
In June 1969, I was thrilled to see the Comet spotting new, classic Century Flyer trains, made by National Amusement Devices. I later learned that these very trains first operated on the Crescent Park Zephyr and for a few months on the Paragon Park Giant Coaster in the mid-1960s, after the Giant lost its trains to a fire. (Paragon ran the Flyers while the trains obtained from a St. Louis amusement park were being prepped to run). So it was great to see an “old face” from Crescent Park!
I rode the Comet with no fear that June 1969 day, and continued to ride it at least 12 times a year, every year thereafter. The ride was spectacular at night with the tracer lights flashing and the illusion of increased speed because of the darkness.
The Comet was a must-do when entertaining my out-of-state relatives, some of whom had never ridden a wooden coaster before.
At some point, and I’m not sure when, the park replaced the light-bulb composed Coaster entrance sign with this painted sign. But other than that, the ride remained unchanged and the thrills were abound.
In the 1980s, I used to ride the Comet alone before big softball games on weekends or vacation days, driving the 30-minutes from East Providence to North Dartmouth, buying the pay-one-price., and jamming in as many rides as I could, sitting wherever there was an empty seat.
That practice continued through the mid-1980s until one day…
To be continued…
The members of Things That Aren’t There Anymore: Southeastern Massachusetts Edition
Nine Persons Injured in Roller Coaster Accident, Standard-Times, 7/24/68
Calamity on The Comet, SouthCoast Today, 8/25/2013