Adventure Island failed to follow procedures and shut down rides as a thunderstorm rolled toward the water park last year, placing a lifeguard in the path of a fatal lightning strike, a federal labor agency has concluded.
Adventure Island is challenging the findings by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the $7,000 fine imposed by the agency.
Justin Savers Inversso was injured in a lightning strike Sept. 10 as he worked 700 feet above the ground on the Key West Rapids ride. Inversso died later at a hospital.
Inversso, who had turned 21 the day before his death, was standing in two or three feet of water as he evacuated patrons from the ride, authorities said. He was taken out of the water by co-workers and given CPR.
His father, Frank Inversso, a Pasco County sheriff's sergeant, declined to comment on the OSHA decision. "The family is still grieving," said Pasco sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin.
The death points up the unique safety challenges facing theme parks — especially water parks, and particularly in lightning-prone Tampa, said Thomas Schmidlin, a geography professor at Kent State University who studies hazardous weather.
"Theme parks are a noisy place," Schmidlin said. "Hearing an approaching thunderstorm may be difficult. And people at an amusement park may not be eager to give up their fun and go indoors."
People on a tall ride are as much in danger as people on the ground seeking shelter under an awning, he said.
"Whether you're high up or not is trivial," Schmidlin said. "A rain storm can become a thunderstorm quickly. And lightning can jump a long way ahead of a cloud."
The OSHA report lists the violation as "serious" and says employees were "not informed to initiate rides shut-down" when the park's monitoring systems indicated lightning zero to five miles from the park.
Adventure Island employees "were exposed to the hazard of being struck by lightning … by not following their own procedures to shut down the rides."
Because of the challenge, the findings may go before an administrative law judge, said Keith Piercy, interim director of OSHA's Tampa office.
The report also has recommendations for improving safety at the park, including more training on how to interpret and assess lightning strike data recorded by the park's weather monitoring systems and improving communication between employees during an approaching storm.
OSHA recommends Adventure Island "re-evaluate time required to evacuate guests from rides, especially when employees are the last to evacuate and seek shelter."
A lightning storm moving at 30 mph will travel 5 miles in just 20 minutes, the report said.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, parent company of Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, declined to comment on the OSHA report.
"Our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of our team member," park spokeswoman Jill Revelle said.
In a statement the day after Inversso's death, park officials said the fatal lightning strike was the first incident of its kind since the water park opened in 1980.
The park has weather radar and other systems in place that monitor the approach of severe weather, Revelle said. A park manager is responsible for checking on weather conditions, she said.
All the park's rides are closed and cleared of customers when lightning is detected in the area, Dean said.
Theme park officials are faced with a balancing act when inclement weather comes into play, said Gary Lopez, director of an Orlando-based tour planning and home rental company.
"You could take as many precautions as you want, but do you go over the top, kick everybody out of the park and lose money?" Lopez said.
"And if you don't, there's the liability issue. Lightning is no joke in Florida and it's a painful challenge for both sides."