Published on January 20, 2008
If Siam Park's own history is anything to go by, the chances of another accident happening there soon - like the one in which 28 children were hurt last weekend - are greater than the possibility of the controversial amusement-park complex being sold to a new owner. The expressed wish of apparently depressed park president Chaiwat Leungamornphan to sell the 26-year-old facility for Bt5 billion has stirred up some sympathy for its heavily criticised management, but it has diverted attention from the real issue - accountability and the responsibilities of present and future investors in amusement parks. The usual public outrage in the wake of such an incident was limited this time, with reporters scurrying to interview potential buyers and park employees.
Chaiwat must have been disheartened by this latest accident, the collapse of a water slide that injured 28 kids on Children's Day. What we cannot get, though, is how that could have happened just three months after the tragic death of a female visitor to the same park. On another public holiday last October, Patchadaporn Kongkarian was on the "Indiana Log Ride" when a sudden drop in power caused the water-pumping mechanism to fail, sending her boat plunging at a higher speed and crashing into the "log" ahead of it.
Her death prompted similar responses, reactions and excuses, explicit or covert. Expressing their regret, park officials promised enhanced awareness and, while insisting standardised safety measures were already in place, they pledged to improve them. Little was said about another accident five years ago, when a Japanese tourist was injured on the same ride at the same park. It was unclear what caused Tomomitsu Kitagava, 32, to suffer back injuries to the extent that he could not move or get out of the ride by himself, but the Patchadaporn tragedy apparently had not served as a big alarm for the park management.
Should Chaiwat sell his park? The above record speaks for itself and it should provide the appropriate answer. The question is how serious he really is about selling it. Another question has to do with what motivated him to come out and make the announcement. Was it regret? Or was it a desperate man talking, who was staring at potentially staggering compensation suits or even legal action?
Other questions have been asked. Will he still sell the park for a profit, knowing that going on by himself might result in lives continuing to be endangered? How has the park, which values itself at Bt5 billion, compensated accident victims, past and present? Who has actually performed inspection and maintenance checks at the park? How often have they done it? Why were children allowed to play on the water slides in big groups? Wasn't that a violation of some basic safety rule?
Last but not least, what will he do if he can't sell the park? Will he continue to operate it the same old way - expressing sadness one day and adopting a business-as-usual approach the next? Has he come to accept that his financial situation and the way the park has been managed are the main factors behind these accidents?
Chaiwat is known to have been struggling financially while running the park. That is anything but a solid excuse. While his apparently unwavering intention to offer a source of fun to children and adults alike is laudable, he operates a facility where safety can't be compromised to suit financial circumstances. In other businesses, a person can say he has done his best and would only have to say sorry when his best isn't good enough. As for amusement parks, when one's best isn't good enough, it often ends in tragedy.
Park employees expressed sympathy with Chaiwat and confirmed he had been fighting hard to keep the facility open. There have also reportedly been some phone calls to give him moral support and urge him not to sell. The media, meanwhile, have been rather lenient following the dramatic press conference after the latest accident. As expected, the emotional announcement has blurred the real issue - which is about safety at amusement parks, not about keeping a place where children can play for the price of admission.
Chaiwat may harbour good intentions. Yet somehow, his apparent determination to make people happy has led to a few ironic results. Good intentions are not enough when what one offers are thrilling rides that rely on every nut and screw to be in place or the opposite of happiness will be the result.