Growing up in Dallas, my family had an annual tradition of going to the State Fair of Texas. I loved to be thrashed around on miniature roller coasters, swung wildly by giant pirate ships, and hurled about in Tilt-a-Whirls. The sense of being out of my element -- feeling out of control -- was somehow comforting.
The most iconic ride at the fair was the Texas Star, the tallest Ferris wheel in North America. It was always my mom who rode with me. My dad waited, worried about something going wrong. I thought he was being a wuss.
Last Friday evening, a woman was thrown from the Texas Giant roller coaster in Arlington. When I was young, part of the appeal of the Texas Giant was that it was a rickety old wooden coaster that perpetually creaked like it was just one gust of wind away from collapsing. In late 2009, the ride closed for more than a year for big renovations that cost about $10 million. Lots of features were brought up to date for safety reasons, including the replacement of the wooden track with a steel one. It re-opened in 2011, no longer the rickety coaster it once was.
According to witnesses, Rosy Esparza, accompanied by her son, told an attendant that she didn't feel properly secured by the safety bar. She was reassured that it was in place, but moments later was thrown from the ride when the restraint failed to hold. It’s at this point that some news organizations began speculating on whether Esparza's size played a role in her death. Pictures of Esparza before the incident show that she was a larger woman, and some critics are saying she should have gotten off the ride if she felt unsafe.
Though it's possible -- we guess -- that her size could have prevented the safety restraints from properly functioning, that's obviously something Six Flags should have taken into consideration beforehand. It isn’t unreasonable for someone to assume that roller coasters are designed to safely restrain customers of ALL sizes. And if this isn't the case, the park should have posted weight limits in clear view of patrons, preferably next to the height requirements.
The truth is, this could have happened to anyone. It’s human nature to want to find something or someone to blame -- anything to make us feel safer next time we ride a roller coaster. Though this attitude is natural in the face of a tragedy, it’s this defense mechanism that leads to the collective victim-blaming of a woman who died. A life was lost here, and that life deserves dignity.
We want to believe she had no business riding a roller coaster at her size, we want to say she should have gotten off as soon as she felt remotely unsafe, and we want to say that we would have done our research better. But this line of thinking is a cop-out.
If we want to feel safe, we need to shift our focus toward advocating for clearer safety guidelines and stronger restraints. Turning her death into a "teachable moment" dehumanizes her and does nothing to prevent further tragedies. We need to remember -- it could have been us.